On Feb. 19, 1942, just over two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which is now understood as a moment of national shame.
The document authorized the creation of incarceration centers to which Japanese immigrants and their children living in the United States, especially along the Pacific Coast, were forcibly removed and detained. They were presumed, as a function not of any legitimate suspicion but of bigotry, to be potentially hostile to the American efforts in World War II.
The country established 10 incarceration sites, and one was just west of Granada in Prowers County, a place that today is known as the Amache camp. At one point during the facility’s operation, more than 7,300 people were interned there. Two-thirds of them were American citizens.
On Wednesday, Republican Rep. Ken Buck and Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse introduced legislation that would upgrade the camp, now a national historic landmark, to a national historic site, bringing it under the management of the National Park System. Such designation would confer to Amache a measure of national recognition that’s better matched to the depth of injustice that was perpetrated there. Neguse and Buck, in whose district the site sits, are to be commended in their sponsorship of the bill.
The material of the bill, however, naturally prompts some uncomfortable observations.
The horror of Amache resulted when American leaders stereotyped, scapegoated and mistreated an immigrant population. Some leaders at the time — notably then-Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr — objected to the program of incarceration as intolerant and unconstitutional, but one wonders how Buck would have behaved were he in a position of authority in the 1940s.
Based at least on his 21st century positions, Buck on balance is no friend to immigrants.
Even before he arrived in Washington, D.C., Buck was making a name for himself for his hyperventilating antipathy toward undocumented residents. When he was district attorney in Weld County, he oversaw a raid on the office of a tax preparer that yielded thousands of tax returns and led to the arrest of more than 100 undocumented residents who were suspected of identity theft. The Colorado Supreme Court later ruled that the raid was illegal.
His contempt for undocumented people has not abated since he became a congressman in 2015. He supported some of former President Donald Trump’s worst immigration policies, such as the wasteful and futile building of the border wall. He opposed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides relief to undocumented people who were brought to America as minors. He recently introduced the Stop Greenlighting Driver Licenses for Illegal Immigrants Act, which would restrict federal grants for states that issue driver’s licenses to undocumented people and “fail to share information about criminal aliens” with federal agents, and the No Bailouts for Illegal Aliens Act, which included language to explicitly prohibit CARES Act money from going to undocumented residents.
It is jarring to see the word “aliens” in modern legislation. It was part of standard usage in previous decades. Executive Order 9066 refers to “alien enemies.” But it has since come to be viewed in most circles as a pejorative in describing immigrants. Colorado lawmakers this week in fact purged the phrase “illegal alien” from state statutes.
Stereotyping. Scapegoating. Mistreatment.
Then there’s Neguse. The Boulder Democrat has long been a staunch champion of immigrant protections. He supported DACA and has spoken passionately about the value of immigrants to the nation. His own parents came to the United States from Eritrea as refugees.
“The internment of Japanese Americans in Colorado was a terrible injustice,” tweeted Neguse in reference to the Amache bill.
Buck voiced similar sentiments. “The nation is better today because of the lessons we have learned from our past,” he said, according to CPR. “Preserving Amache serves as one of those hard lessons for the people of Eastern Colorado and the rest of our nation.”
Treating undocumented people with disdain and cruelty is not the same as incarcerating innocent Americans. But future Americans are likely to look back on hard-line immigration policies like Buck’s and learn their own hard lessons.