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Japanese Latin Americans Seek Paymens for WWII Injustices

By Hector Tobar
Los Angeles Times

The police came to take the family away: a husband and wife and four children, each allowed to pack one suitcase. The family land, including a cotton plantation, was lost forever. Placed on a ship, guarded by soldiers with machine guns, they sailed across an ocean to a concentration camp.

The camp was in Crystal City, Texas. And the soldiers with the doughboy helmets who took Alicia Nishimoto and her family from Peru were members of the U.S. Army.

It is a little-known, dark chapter in U.S. and Latin American history. During World War II, the Roosevelt administration arranged the detention of more than 2,200 people of Japanese ancestry from 13 Latin American countries, the overwhelming majority of them from Peru.

Although no official explanation for the internment was ever offered, historians believe the Japanese Latin Americans were abducted for reasons similar to the much larger detention of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast of the United States: They were believed to pose a military threat to the United States and its allies.

Nishimoto, then a 10-year-old citizen of Peru, spent two years in the Texas internment camp. Half a century later, she and hundreds of other abducted Latin American Japanese are still being denied an official letter of apology from the U.S. government.

The reason for the denial is a bureaucratic Catch-22 that has kept alive the sting of the old injustice: since the Japanese Latin Americans were brought to the United States against their will, they were not legal U.S. residents and thus not eligible for an apology under the law.

"How can they call us illegal immigrants when we were forced to come here?" asks Nishimoto, who for the past 33 years has lived in Southern California.

A few of the Japanese Peruvians were exchanged for Americans held in Japan, but most spent the duration of the war behind the barbed wire of the camp in southwest Texas. Some were held until 1948, three years after the war's end.

Frustrated after being denied both the apology and the redress payments first granted to Japanese-American internees in 1990, the Latin American Japanese plan to file suit this week in federal Claims Court in Washington, D.C.

"These actions were a violation of international law," says Grace Shimizu, an activist in the movement for redress and the daughter of a Peruvian-Japanese man held in the camps. "This was kidnapping civilians from a third country not at war, taking them across international waters and jailing them. It's important to hold the government accountable."

Officials with the Justice Department's Office of Redress Administration acknowledge the detentions and transportations occurred, but say the Latin American Japanese are not covered by the provisions of the 1988 reparations law, which was restricted to those who were U.S. citizens and legal residents at the time of their detention.

Justice Department officials said Congress recognized the suffering of the Latin American Japanese in the 1982 report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. A small number of Peruvian Japanese did receive redress payments because they became legal residents before the June 1946 date established by the law.