Former President Donald Trump is campaigning to turn America into a police state where “communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical-left thugs that live like vermin” are rooted out.
But the most sinister part of his plan is aimed at undocumented workers and their families in the U.S., and people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking political asylum. Trump proudly tells MAGA crowds he will hold these immigrants in “detention camps” and deport millions from the country each year.
Regrettably, the dehumanizing treatment of immigrants and people of color Trump’s proposing is nothing new for America, but that history must not be repeated. Wyoming, which played a pivotal role in the horrendous mistreatment of Japanese Americans incarcerated after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, should take the lead in telling Trump “never again.” As Trump continues to ramp up anti-immigrant hate, Wyoming must remember Heart Mountain.
During World War II, about 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their West Coast homes, though none were ever charged with a crime. At its peak, the Heart Mountain camp near Cody held 10,767 people.
Sam Mihara, 90, was only 9 years old when his family was taken from San Francisco and sent by train to Wyoming. Now he travels the country to lecture about the roots of this miscarriage of justice and his personal experiences. He does this, Mihara explained, because it’s part of history rarely taught in schools.
In September, the Wyoming Humanities Council sponsored his lecture series across Wyoming, a state where he once vowed never to return.
Mihara doesn’t call Heart Mountain an internment camp, as it and nine other facilities were known, because it was a prison. What else do you call a place where you are locked up and threatened with being shot if found outside the fence?
When we examine Trump’s deportation plan that he hopes to implement if voters return him to the White House in 2024, it’s important to remember that the incarceration of Japanese Americans was authorized by another president, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In the immediate wake of Pearl Harbor, a majority of Americans did not want to see fellow citizens of Japanese descent punished for an act they had no role in. But that quickly changed as many politicians and the media led the call to round them up as a security risk. It’s a stark lesson in how people can be caught up in a frenzy of hate and attack their fellow citizens.
“I say it is of vital importance that we get rid of every Japanese, whether in Hawaii or on the mainland,” said then-U.S. Rep. John Rankin (D-Mississippi). “Damn them! Let’s get rid of them now.”
“Japanese a Menace to American Women,” stated a San Francisco Chronicle headline from the time. Some journalists referred to Japanese Americans as “rats.” Even Walter Lippman, Washington, D.C.’s most popular columnist and an avid favorite of FDR, supported the camps to save the country from “enemy aliens.”
At a Salt Lake City meeting of 10 Western governors, then-Wyoming Gov. Nels Smith blasted the plan to relocate Japanese Americans to his state.
“The people of Wyoming have a dislike for any Oriental and simply will not stand for being California’s dumping ground,” Smith said. “If you bring Japanese to my state, I promise you they will be hanging from every pine tree.”
The federal government sold racist governors like Smith on the concept by guaranteeing “the evacuees remained within the reception centers under guard,” or in other words, prison.
There was no actual evidence that Japanese Americans were plotting to attack U.S. military installations, but that didn’t matter to Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, in charge of the Western Defense Command. He used unjustified fear as an excuse to justify evacuations: “The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.”
Some Department of Justice officials dissented including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who argued any action taken against Japanese American citizens because of their race was unconstitutional. But faced with intense public and political pressure, FDR signed an executive order giving the military authority to begin the mass detainment.
DeWitt despised Japanese people, and even though he wavered almost daily about whether sending them to camps was a good idea, he eventually carried out the plan with gusto.
But during his University of Wyoming lecture, Mihara noted DeWitt was the only one of five U.S. generals who made that decision. Lt. Gen. Ben Lear, who led the Central Defense Command that included Wyoming, said he would not relocate Japanese Americans living in his region to camps. Mihara said that included farm workers in several communities like Riverton and Evanston. Agricultural workers were considered vital to the war effort.
This was also true in Hawaii, where more than one-third of the population were Japanese, including many farmers. Pacific Defense Commander Delos Emmons, who also raised constitutional questions, managed to spare all but a few hundred from being incarcerated.
“Blindsided: The Life and Times of Sam Mihara,” describes what happened at Heart Mountain. “We weren’t ready for Wyoming,” he told author Alexandra Villarreal. “No one told us where we were going, and we had no warm clothing.”
His family was assigned to a small barracks. A high school was built, but Cody residents insisted plans to build a grammar school be scrapped because the town didn’t even have one. Mihara and other students had their lessons in one of the barracks.
Mihara spent three years at Heart Mountain before prisoners were finally allowed to leave in 1945. After a disastrous stay in Salt Lake City, where the Mihara family struggled to survive, they returned to San Francisco and a better life.
Mihara went to college and was hired by Boeing, where he became a rocket scientist. Despite his success, he was still haunted by his time at Heart Mountain.
Infrequently, prisoners were allowed to visit Cody, 15 miles away. In “Blindsided,” Mihara recalled a trip he made with his father, where they encountered “No Japs” signs in front of many stores and very unfriendly townsfolk.
“It was the single worst moment of my imprisonment, over illness, over death, over mushy food and small living quarters,” Mihara recalled. “[It showed] how cruel humanity can be.”
Mihara said after many years he forgave people responsible for his treatment, but not those who lived in Wyoming. “To me, they were racists,” he said. “They deserved to feel despised, like they had made me feel as a boy.”
But an unplanned visit to Heart Mountain softened his stance. Every store in Cody had signs welcoming Japanese Americans, and he realized “the righteous hatred previous generations had felt for me” no longer existed. He forgave the people of Wyoming.
He’s worried, though, about the anti-immigration policies of the U.S. today. Trump is counting on turning xenophobia into votes. Mihara said the question he’s repeatedly asked is, “ How do we keep it from happening again?”
“Please, I beg you — do something, now,” Mihari pleaded in his biography. “As American citizens, no matter what color or creed, we should have known better. We should have done something.
“The answer is simple,” he said. “We don’t let it [happen again]. We vote. We run for office. We care. We listen.”
At a time when Trump is accusing undocumented immigrants of “poisoning the blood of our country,” as he did on Veterans’ Day, Mihara’s message is one we must heed. Especially the part about voting.