Japanese Peruvian children pose for a class photo at Crystal City Internment Camp, March 3, 1947. Libia Yamamoto is on the far right. Teacher George K. Uno is seated. (Courtesy of Kazumu Naganuma and Hiroshi Shimizu)
Libia Yamamoto has a feel for fashion — even as a young girl in a World War II detention camp.
On a recent trip back to the place where she was imprisoned for four years as a child, Yamamoto showed me a class photo. She was 10 years old at the time, and in the picture she's smiling at the camera, dark hair swept back in a ribbon, sporting a plaid tailored dress with a flared skirt.
Yamamoto is now 84. Her hair is white, but still carefully coiffed. On this cold November day she’s bundled up in a long wool coat as she waits to board a chartered bus. I'm joining her as she travels more than 100 miles from San Antonio to Crystal City, Texas, where she was interned.
Soon we’re rolling down the highway into rural South Texas, in a convoy of buses carrying 170 people who all share some connection to the Crystal City Internment Camp. They are making this pilgrimage to draw attention to a little-known injustice of WWII that seems more relevant than ever: They see a repeat of their own history in the large-scale detention of migrant families in recent years.
Yamamoto was born in Peru to parents who had immigrated from Japan in the early 1900s. The family owned several thriving businesses in the coastal city of Chiclayo and lived a comfortable life on a hacienda with servants and chauffeurs.
That life unraveled after the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
A year after that attack, police in Peru arrested Yamamoto's father and took him to the local jail. Yamamoto and her mother arrived there the next morning just in time to see police load him onto a truck with other men and drive away.
Yamamoto said her mother, who had kept her composure until then, burst into tears.
Yamamoto cried too.
“In between sobs, I would ask my mother, 'Where's he going?'” Yamamoto recalled. “She said she didn't know. I said, 'When is he coming back?' She didn’t know anything.”
It turns out that the U.S. government had pressured Latin American governments to turn over legal residents and even citizens of Japanese, German or Italian ancestry, ostensibly to protect the southern hemisphere from invasion.
Under the pretext of national security, U.S. officials transported supposedly dangerous “enemy aliens” to the United States. Ultimately more than 2,200 people of Japanese ancestry from 13 Latin American countries ended up detained in the United States during WWII. Of those, 1800 were from Peru.
I first learned about this history more than 20 years ago from a family friend in Los Angeles who told me, “The U.S. government kidnapped my family and threw us in a concentration camp.”
This was back before I was a journalist. I helped publicize the redress efforts of some of the surviving Japanese Latin Americans who filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government in 1996.
For a month after her father was taken away, Yamamoto told me her family didn’t know where he was or even if he was alive. Then he managed to send a letter for her sister’s birthday.
“He had enclosed some pressed flowers,” Yamamoto remembered. “He said, ‘I'm sorry, I can't give you any birthday present, so this will have to do.’ ”
He wrote that he’d been put to work in a U.S. Army camp in Panama.
Months later, authorities told the family that if they wanted to see him again, they would have to agree to be shipped to the United States and reunite with him there.
So in July 1943, Yamamoto, her mother and two siblings joined other wives and children at the port of Callao to board a U.S. ship. She remembers walking up the gangplank, bringing all that they could carry.
“I was so afraid,” Yamamoto said. “We saw the soldiers lined up with guns, and we thought, ‘As soon as we go to high seas, they're going to kill us all!’ ”
As it turned out, the U.S. planned to use detainees like the Yamamoto's family for prisoner exchanges with Japan and other enemy nations. During the war, the U.S. exchanged 900 Japanese Latin Americans for U.S. citizens held by the Japanese, and then after the war, deported another 800 of them to Japan, a place many of them had never seen.
U.S. consuls in Latin America were under orders not to issue visas to families like Yamamoto's, and on the ship, U.S. soldiers confiscated the passports of any traveler who had one, according to historian C. Harvey Gardiner, who wrote a book about the prisoner exchange program.
When Yamamoto's family arrived in New Orleans, after a three week journey, she said immigration agents on the dock asked to see their travel documents. When she couldn't present a visa or passport, her mother was told the family had entered the U.S. “illegally,” and they were being sent to detention.
Yamamoto remembered seeing customs agents searching bags and even dumping people’s belongings into the water. But she was allowed to keep her prized possession: a doll her father had given her.
Unlike the 120,000 American citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry in the U.S. who were detained in internment camps run by the War Relocation Authority, the Latin Americans were detained in facilities run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. They were largely hidden from the public and the press.
An estimated 3,000 Latin Americans of Japanese, German and Italian ancestry passed through the Crystal City internment camp for families. A 1945 propaganda film produced by the U.S. Department of Justice shows hundreds of cabins laid out across dirt roads and enclosed in high fences with watch towers for armed guards.
Yamamoto was seven when she arrived and would spend the next four years there.
Immigrant Families Detained Today
In January of this year, I traveled to the same part of Texas to report on a new wave of families in detention: thousands of mothers and children seeking refuge from violence in Central America who were taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and placed in a privately-run prison, just 45 miles from Crystal City, in a town called Dilley.
Since the facility opened in 2015, the population has fluctuated from a few hundred people up to 2400.
ICE denied my requests to visit the South Texas Family Residential Center, so I asked an immigrant advocate who had worked inside it to drive me to the highway entrance. From there at a distance you can see a large tented area, where immigrant rights advocate Katy Murdza believes people are processed in.
“You can just see the tops of the light posts,” Murdza observed. “There's flood lighting at night, so people say it's even hard to sleep because it's never truly night.”
Those flood lights are so bright you can see them from a mile away.
The Crystal City camp was also surrounded by barbed wire fences and flood lights.
When our buses arrive, all that’s visible on the now barren field is a water tower and the cement base of a reservoir that the detainees converted into a swimming pool to escape the scorching Texas summers.
Two girls drowned in that pool — one of them was Yamamoto's good friend.
Yamamoto and the other pilgrims gather inside the base of the swimming pool for a ceremony to honor the girls and 15 other people who died at the camp.
Buddhist minister Ron Kobata of San Francisco asks participants to offer incense and white carnations at an altar for their predecessors, “who endured this experience, but not with just pity and resentment, but with determination, so that their offspring will not have to endure that same tragedy.”
Yamamoto and other pilgrims participate in the ritual.
Later, they say that a very similar tragedy is unfolding again — for migrant families coming to the U.S. to seek asylum.
The day after their visit to Crystal City, they participate in a rally in San Antonio with local immigrant advocates. Yamamoto is invited to speak.
“Lately when I hear the immigrants getting separated by children and parents, I feel so bad for them!” she tells the crowd of a couple hundred people. She says it brings back the painful memories of her own childhood separation.
“When my father was kidnapped in January of 1943 and we said goodbye to him, not knowing where he was being taken, and when we ever will see him again,” she says. “It was a very traumatic day for me.”
Murdza, the advocate who took me to the family detention center in Dilley earlier this year, also speaks at the rally. She works for an organization that provides legal help to families to get them released from detention to await their hearings in immigration court.
“Detention harms the physical health, mental health and legal rights of the families,” she tells the former internees.
“The government calls this facility the South Texas Family Residential Center,” Murdza says. “But those of us who know its effects on the mothers and children detained there know that it's a jail.”
Starting Over in the United States
After about eight months of separation, Yamamoto was finally reunited with her father in Crystal City.
Then the parents learned that the U.S. wanted to deport them to Japan — a place that Yamamoto and her siblings had never been. But the day they were set to sail, Yamamoto’s father became too ill to travel. His health had deteriorated in detention.
A full two years after the war ended, the family was still being held at Crystal City. Finally, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California arranged for their release to an aunt in Berkeley who agreed to sponsor them. Yamamoto remembers taking the train to the now defunct Santa Fe station at Acton Street and University Avenue.
“A Japanese minister came to pick us up,” she recalled. “He drove up University and all the neon lights were shining. Wow! We were just amazed at all those beautiful lights.”
Yamamoto’s parents lost all their property in Peru, and Peruvian officials would not allow the family to return. She says her parents worked menial jobs in California for the rest of their lives.
For more than a decade after their release, the government continued to consider them "illegal aliens” subject to deportation. Then in 1954, a change in U.S. immigration law allowed the family to become legal permanent residents.
Finally, in 1998, Japanese Latin Americans won a historic settlement of $5,000 for each surviving detainee or their family, and a letter of apology signed by President Bill Clinton.
While many survivors found the offer meager, they thought it was important that the U.S. government officially acknowledged that it had violated their rights.
“We recognize the wrongs of the past and offer our profound regret to those who endured such grave injustice,” the letter stated. “We understand that our nation’s actions were rooted in racial prejudice and wartime hysteria.”
Yamamoto says she’s praying that President Trump will soon realize that his policies on immigrant families are wrong and that children are paying the price.