Perhaps it’s a naive point of view, but I thought America had gotten over separating and marginalizing vast groups of people. The last president to identify and denigrate certain people within our country occurred following the attack on Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt issued an executive order in early 1942 to round up Japanese people, American citizens or not, and put them in internment camps reportedly to prevent espionage.
Most of the 117,000 Japanese relocated from their homes and businesses were American citizens. Finally, in 1944, the Supreme Court ruled against the internment in a lawsuit brought by one of the imprisoned Japanese women, saying she (and others) had not shown disloyalty to the United States.
Slavery was introduced into the colonies in the early 17th century and grew throughout the birth of the nation until ended by President Lincoln when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, a presidential proclamation and executive order in 1863. The thirteenth amendment to the constitution that abolished slavery was passed and ratified in 1865.
An interesting footnote is that Congress passed a law abolishing the slave trade, the importation of slaves, in 1807. The need for slave labor was decreasing and there were enough slaves to do agricultural work in the south.
During the same time as the slave trade, America was coming into its own with the growing immigration of European settlers, settlers who wanted land in the south on which to farm. Tribes of Indians living on their ancestral lands were removed from their lands and relocated to Oklahoma under the Indian Relocation Act passed by Congress and signed by President Jackson in 1830. Tribes were forced to move. One such move is known as the “Trail of Tears,” a long arduous journey in which nearly 4000 Cherokee died.
The thinking of the time was that Indians were “inferior to whites,” not unlike the view of Africans brought over in slave ships. Japanese internments were an act of racism as well if one believes that imbuing an entire race with the warlike and heinous act of the mother country is inherently racist, a view substantiated by anti-Japanese editorials appearing in newspapers at the time.
All three of these shameful exercises of great power had their roots in the common justification that Indians, blacks and Japanese were different, not good enough to have protection under the laws and in some way a threat to others.
Another commonality was that enslavement resulted in benefits to business, such as access to land, low expenses, low investment and more profit. Lastly, but not the end of it, ordinary men and women bought into the “rightness” of atrocities against life, dignity and secure family life of those that were different.
That’s not to say there were not people who protested; there were. The civil war was no doubt the ultimate protest.
Here we go again
Just as there are protests now as we hear the same denigration of a group of people who are different and same justification of imprisonment and denial of process and protection under the law because they are not “one of us.”
What’s different is that unlike Africans destined to be slaves, people from Central American seeking asylum want to come to America for a better life. A variety of conditions including poverty, hunger, violence and hopelessness are driving people out of their homelands.
People flooding our borders wanting asylum is a new experience for our country. We have no precedent or facility for managing the numbers. We’ve all seen the photos and heard the reports of adults separated from their children and crowded into cages and children, some crying “mama” and “papa,” crowded together in cages.
The president is right when he says that border patrol agents aren’t trained or equipped to manage thousands of refugees. What’s confounding is that he and his administration are doing nothing to manage the situation. There are less judges instead of more to screen and process asylum requests. There are less expectations instead of more on countries of origins.
Recently, the Congress passed and the president signed a bill that provides $4.6 billion for “humanitarian aid.” It seems that should be enough to send in cavalries of doctors, nurses, judges, social workers and supplies of daily living.
If billions of dollars don’t upend the system failures and incompetence occurring on our southern border, we will know for certain that it is power, politics and inherent racism underlying the cruel inaction. Caging people and calling them animals is simply the terrible expression of it all.
The political establishment is immobilized by its own rhetoric. We don’t need to open borders and we don’t need to cage asylum seekers. We need a president and administration that stops setting fire to solutions by saying things like “the situation is better for (the asylum seekers) than where they came from,” one of the president’s worst oxymoron arguments.
This presidency has shown me the frightening power in the hands of the president. As we’ve seen, the power can be exerted for good or for evil.
The power of the president is nearly absolute in all the above actions in that it is not challenged, except in the courts. The judicial branch of government can reverse course and did for the interned Japanese, the sovereignty of relocated Indians and continues to this day to fight for equal justice under the law for black and brown people. But it took and takes years, long enough that the damage to people can never be undone.
We need to answer questions like: Is allowing caged scared children to cry for their mamas part of the heart and soul of America? Should we be comforted because it’s them, not us, not our children? Do we really believe in the value of diversity? Is “power of the people” an illusion?
Bertha Cooper spent her career years as a health care organization and program administrator and consultant and is a featured columnist in Sequim Gazette. Cooper has lived in Sequim with her husband for nearly 20 years. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.