I was born a citizen to American parents, but my first three months were spent far removed from our beloved home in California. Instead, I began my life in the Arizona desert on a stark compound surrounded by barbed wire.
In the land of the free, my family and thousands of others were imprisoned in internment camps during World War II. It was a time of fear and uncertainty when our country pushed aside the unalienable rights of Americans of Japanese ancestry in the name of national security.
These people weren’t faceless criminals. They were law-abiding Americans, upstanding members of their communities, children, families, people young and old, who were forced to uproot their lives.
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For years after the imprisonment ended, my family did not talk about the experience. My relatives wanted to get back to their lives and move on from the pain. I grew up like any other American girl, with dreams and hopes for the future. But as time went by, I realized that this was not only a family story, but an American story.
My grandparents on my mother’s side operated a successful farm growing fruit trees and grape vines in Reedley in the Central Valley. When they were forced to travel to Poston, Ariz., to be interned, they were fortunate enough to have a network of supportive friends back home to help keep their business going in their absence.
Many families were not so lucky. Some lost everything when they were forced to leave.
My father’s family was one of them. My father, Ichiro Okada, was a flower and plant grower in Los Angeles, and had started a seed business when authorities directed him to report to Poston. He had been the sole support of his ailing father. His younger brother was away, serving in the Army, stationed at Fort Sill, Okla.
I often imagine what that would have been like, to have been uprooted from his career and community right at the beginning of adulthood, when he was full of ambition and anticipation for the future.
What my family and others achieved, despite the deprivations of internment, was, as one person described it, “the quiet heroism of everyday life.”
No task was too small or beneath them. They took scrap wood, scraps of paper, cardboard, anything to cover up the holes in the flimsy walls of the barracks that were to be their home. They grew their own vegetables. They provided fresh meals. They organized schools. They set up their own laundry service. They created and sewed much of the clothing at the camp.
My mother, Matsuye, a talented seamstress, made bridal gowns for several young women who got married in the camp. In other words, they never lost their sense of community. They faced the camp’s countless hardships with unfailing dignity, resourcefulness and resilience.
Years later, my father told me how he and other internees tried to grow flowers in the hot, barren desert. Again and again, they experimented with different kinds of flowers to see which ones could adapt to the searing, arid climate. Many seedlings died, but one variety managed, somehow, to survive.
“When the first bloom came out, everyone was ecstatic,” my father remembered. It was as if that solitary flower reminded them of themselves: resilient, strong and determined to find hope in the desert.
My parents met in that internment camp. They got married. And they had me. They proved love and family could triumph even in the midst of tragedy and injustice. Even in a moment of darkness, they could hold on to hope and the promise of what might be possible for the next generation.
And there was so much that ended up being possible.
My late husband, Bob, and I, both interned by our own country, went on to represent the people of Sacramento in Congress. Our American story is unique. But that it happened is one example of what makes our country great.
Our family’s journey from internment camps to the halls of Congress is a visible reminder that our nation strives to attain a more perfect union. And our public service helped our country officially recognize a wrong.
Almost three decades ago, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act into law, rightfully issuing a formal apology to Japanese Americans who were victims of internment camps. Leaders from both political parties and all backgrounds united in recognizing America’s mistake.
The ability of our country to acknowledge a deep injustice demonstrated our commitment to the ideals on which we were founded.
That is one reason why I have been so taken aback by calls over the course of the past year to return to the same fear-based reactionary practices that led to the internment of my family.
First, David Bowers, the mayor of Roanoke, Va., referenced the internment camps as a justification for his response to the Syrian refugee crisis. I and many others expressed outrage and he later apologized.
Since then, Donald Trump and his supporters have wrongly rationalized radical policies aimed at Muslims by citing the internment of Japanese Americans. That anyone would cite the internment of Japanese Americans as justification for latter-day discrimination is appalling. The internment of my fellow citizens was one of the worst wrongs our country has ever committed.
We live in a different century. But the fear that drove our country then is the same fear driving this dangerous, modern-day rhetoric.
Reckless comments bring us back to a painful time, and suggest that our commitment to the American ideals of liberty and justice for all is subject to the whims of a powerful few. We know they are not. America is stronger than that.
But I’m left to wonder: When will the fear-mongering stop? Will our country have to issue another formal apology, decades from now, to another group of people who were marginalized because of who they are? Or will we finally learn our lesson?
The issue isn’t one of hurt feelings or political correctness. It is about recognizing in our fellow citizens the humanity we all demand for ourselves. We can keep our country safe and protect our values.
We can solve challenges without marginalizing people of different faiths, races and national origins. What and who we stand up for now will determine their future. The words we choose matter. Our children and grandchildren are listening.
Rep. Doris Matsui is a Democrat who represents Sacramento in Congress. She can be contacted at Matsui.Press@mail.house.gov.