Asian-American Lawmakers Reintroduce Bill To Prevent Race-Based Imprisonment

Two senators and a congressman have jointly reintroduced legislation to ensure that an atrocity like the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II will never be repeated. 

Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), and Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) introduced the Korematsu-Takai Civil Liberties Protection Act of 2019 shortly before Tuesday’s Day of Remembrance, which marks the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942. The order ultimately allowed the forced removal and incarceration of more than 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent.

With the bill, the lawmakers aim to legally bar any policies that’d give way to the imprisonment of U.S. citizens based on race, religion, nationality, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability. The act was initially introduced in December 2017. The 2019 version has gained at least 13 co-sponsors.

Duckworth explained to HuffPost that, though the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans occurred nearly four decades ago, she feels it’s necessary to have legal protections in place to ensure that a similar mass imprisonment never occurs. 

We need to be doing everything we can to protect the civil rights of every American,” Duckworth told HuffPost. “Still to this day, the federal criminal code contains no explicit prohibition on imprisoning or detaining citizens solely on the basis of race, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, national origin or disability.” 

Duckworth noted that the Supreme Court did not directly overrule the precedents set in the cases of Japanese-Americans Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui, who each took legal action against the government for its treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. In all their cases, the court failed to scrutinize the executive branch’s decision. And as recently as June, the Trump administration cited the 1943 Supreme Court decision in Hirabayashi v. United States in its argument to keep Guantanamo Bay detainees from disseminating their artwork. The decision upheld the idea that curfews held against a minority group are constitutional in wartime. Thus, Duckworth said, “passing this bill now is as important as ever.” 

There are several Trump administration policies that Duckworth feels tread particularly close to discriminating against people based on their backgrounds. For one, the “ill-conceived and discriminatory travel ban comes to mind,” she said. President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13769 two years ago, barring citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. The ban has since been revised multiple times after court challenges. Currently, the ban affects citizens from five majority-Muslim nations — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen ― as well as North Korea and Venezuela. The ban was upheld by the Supreme Court last year over lower court decisions claiming it was unconstitutional. 

Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran, also cited the president’s ban on transgender troops in the military as another discriminatory policy. Duckworth has previously been outspoken against the ban, saying in a January statement that “when I was bleeding to death in my Black Hawk helicopter on that dusty field in Iraq, I didn’t care if the American troops risking their lives to help save me were gay, straight, transgender, black, white, male or female.”

“This bill will establish a first line of defense against any attempt to repeat mass curfews or mass detention of citizens,” she told HuffPost. 

The bill takes its name from the late Congressman Mark Takai (D-Hawaii), who was outspoken about the harm done to the Japanese-American community during World War II, and Fred Korematsu, who famously defied military orders and resisted forced incarceration. He was arrested and, in his case against the United States, the court ruled that the wartime incarceration was a “military necessity.” The ruling has since been widely discredited. 

Though she says she hopes Americans have recognized the past attacks on civil liberties, she told HuffPost that “the only way we can make sure we never again repeat such shameful acts is by continuing to acknowledge our history, educating our fellow citizens and by doing everything we can to push back against attacks on civil rights for all of us.”

“It is tempting to believe that such an extreme action is forever condemned to the history books, not to repeat itself,” she said. “We must avoid falling into the trap of complacency, and passing a commonsense law to establish a clear legal prohibition banning the discriminatory mass detention of Americans because of who they are, not what they’ve done, is a good place to start.”

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