We Promised My Grandparents Never Again.

By Nathan Kasai

After widespread and unwavering backlash, President Trump tried to control the fallout from his self-created family separation crisis, signing an executive order that claims to keep asylum-seeking families together. But the President’s executive order simply trades one cruel policy for another. Instead of taking children from their parents, it imprisons families in twenty-first century internment camps — something we, as a nation, promised my grandparents we would never tolerate again.

Seventy-six years ago, the government sent my grandparents to prison camps despairingly similar to the ones families fleeing violence will be sent to under Trump’s new policy. Japanese Americans are painfully aware of the lasting damage these camps will inflict. We have the family memories to know exactly what this will do.

The camps were brutally traumatic for my grandparents. So much so that my grandfather never spoke about his time in them. He was just a teenager when his father was taken and jailed separately in a different camp because of his stature in the Japanese-American community. Returning to those memories was simply too painful.

She told me how she feared there would never be a place for her in this country if she was released.

My grandmother, though, was determined that I would know our history so that we would not sit by if the government repeated its past outrages. She told me how her heart sank when she first walked into her barrack that housed three other families and had no walls for privacy between them. She told me how she grew up behind barbed wire, playing under the constant watch of armed soldiers. She told me how she feared there would never be a place for her in this country if she was released. She told me how she couldn’t understand why a country built on the ideals of liberty and equality would categorically imprison families.

Hearing these stories, it seemed preposterous to think that the United States could ever repeat the injustices inflicted on our family. Those were the injustices of past generations, not mine. It seemed we had learned that some tactics were too brutal to be utilized again in America.

But here we are.

Today, families presenting good faith asylum claims, who are following the law and the prescribed process to petition for that status, are facing the same widespread and prolonged captivity my then-teenage grandparents did.

Families asking our country for protection from imminent danger in their home country are more than willing to follow the rules.

Just like when my grandparents were imprisoned, the President claims he has no choice. But there is always a choice. Before June 2017, the government placed asylum-seeking families into the Family Case Management Program — monitoring them closely, but allowing them to live outside of detention facilities. And despite the President’s claim this created a “catch and release” system, it worked exceptionally well until he ended it. The government’s own records show that over 99% of participants appeared at their immigration court hearings. Families asking our country for protection from imminent danger in their home country are more than willing to follow the rules. No matter how many times President Trump, Homeland Security Secretary Nielson, and Attorney General Sessions lie and claim that they have no choice, it will never be true.

We’ve turned our back on compassion and decency before. We’re doing it again. If my grandparents were alive now, they would be horrified to see what their country is becoming. Then they’d stand up and fight back.

Families belong together, and not in prisons.


Nathan Kasai is a social policy advisor at Third Way.