Families DividedMore in this series
In the small South Texas town of Crystal City, little remains of the massive internment camp that was used to incarcerate thousands of people of Japanese and German ancestry in the 1940s.
But the memories of that imprisonment — and the enduring trauma that came with it — have stalked Hiroshi Shimizu since the day he left the camp in 1947.
“From the time I was born until I was almost five, all I had known was incarceration,” Shimizu said. “You carry that with you every day.”
As a humanitarian crisis has recently unfolded on the border where more than 2,300 migrant children have been separated from their parents after crossing into the country illegally, Shimizu and other Japanese-Americans who were imprisoned at the Crystal City internment camp have watched with heavy hearts, all too familiar with the toll that being confined can take on a child.
Bearing witness to the detention of young children has only been made more painful by the fact that the trauma they’ve been burdened with for most of their lives is now being inflicted on children who have no one to lean on.
“There’s a strong part of me that identifies with what’s happening today, except for the fact that I was never separated from my parents,” said Shimizu, who lives in the Bay Area. “It’s difficult to conceive of what’s going on ...” he said before choking up and letting his response linger in quiet sadness.
For months, the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy has led to the separation of thousands of migrant families who crossed the border together but were separated after the federal government began criminally prosecuting all adults who entered the country illegally. Because youths cannot be sent to jails, children — some of whom are reportedly just a few months old — have been taken from their parents and placed in federal custody.
Even now that President Donald Trump signed an executive order meant to halt the family separations that his administration’s policy caused, it remains unclear how or when families may be reunited — if they’re reunited at all.
For some Crystal City internees, the parallels that have emerged between today’s immigration crisis and the internment of Japanese-Americans are chilling.
Scores of Japanese-American families were torn apart in the 1940s when the federal government forcibly relocated and incarcerated citizens of Japanese ancestry and immigrants it considered “enemy aliens” in detention camps across the country following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II. In some cases, children were rounded up with no idea where they were going, how long they were going to be held or whether their parents had been deported to another country.
And as questions continue over how long the migrant families will be separated, some of the Japanese-Americans who were held at Crystal City have been left to agonize over whether the legacy of trauma that followed their mass incarceration — post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders — will be handed down to the children who have been detained away from their parents.
“The thought of being torn from their parents and being placed in a separate facility unknown miles away from where their mother is possibly being deported causes so much anxiety,” said Satsuki Ina, a therapist from the San Francisco area who was also held at Crystal City. “I think these children are being damaged.”
Like some of today’s detained children, Ina was separated from her father, who was sent to a camp in North Dakota while she was held in Texas with her mother and brother from 1944 to 1946. Her reaction to her father’s return two years later was indicative of the trauma she had already suffered.
“I cried whenever he came close to me. I had no idea who he was,” Ina said. “Here was somebody who was a total stranger, and I was supposed to call him father.”
Her mother suffered from psychological trauma and dealt with back and kidney problems. She also carried a lifelong fear of being left behind — a level of anxiety that Ina says her mother transmitted to her after the family was released and lived in an “atmosphere of fragile safety.”
“I do have this constant state of vigilance and a constant need to prove myself,” she said. “We talk about how much we’re still in the camp.”
Created to incarcerate entire families, the living conditions in the Crystal City camp were better than at other internment camps across the nation. But the feeling of imprisonment was inescapable, with the facility’s 10-foot-high barbed wire fence and guard towers at each corner.
As the outcry over the current separation and detainment of children has grown across the country, federal officials have defended the conditions in which the children are being held once they make it to a shelter or foster home. They’ve offered up photos of tidy beds provided to the children and have pointed out that children are being educated and are allowed time to play.
“I heard that just yesterday they were saying they had good food and books and TV and all those kinds of things they were being taken care of very nicely, but they were confined and they were without their parents,” Shimizu said. “I don’t care how they try to paint that picture. It’s a horror.”
Many of Shimizus' memories from the camp are tried to the strong relationships he had with his family, and he remembers playing and exploring the grounds with other children, but even the fond memories are overridden by the shadow of incarceration.
"We were inside these fences," he said. "We couldn't go beyond."
“Imprisoning these children,” even if they’re allowed to “play games and watch Moana,” is additionally troubling to Ina, who, given her work as a therapist, is well aware of the severe effects living in a state of fear and terror can have on the developing brain of a child. That sort of irreparable harm is only intensified if children are detained without their parents, who can at least provide some comfort, she added.
The experiences of the Crystal City internees also serve as examples of how the lasting trauma of detention can be inherited by even the youngest of migrant children who are currently detained.
Born in the Crystal City camp in 1945, Larry Oda says he has no memories of being at the camp because his family was released about a year later. But he grew up hearing from his parents about what it was like to lose everything, and he remembers the reactions of others when the painful memories of being rounded up were relived. That’s left him to carry the weight of his family’s detention his entire life, constantly living in fear of being blamed for something he didn’t do.
“We were imprisoned for the way we looked. There was no reason,” said Oda, who lives in Monterey, California. “So I felt that I had to make sure I did everything right, that I didn’t make waves. Otherwise, I would be targeted again.”
The fate of today’s separated families is unknown, and there appears to be no guarantee that every family will be reunited. Some children have been placed in state-licensed facilities, many of which have a long history of regulatory inspections that have uncovered serious health and safety deficiencies. Others have since been moved to foster homes. An untold number of children are now hundreds if not thousands of miles away from where their parents are being detained. Some parents have even been deported without their children.
Even if a clear path for reunification was in place, some of the Crystal City internees struggle with the reality that the detained migrant children might not overcome the scars they now share.
For Shimizu’s family, life after the internment camp meant a return to San Francisco. His family had lost everything during their imprisonment, but his father, who worked for a Japanese-American newspaper before the war, put everything he had into starting over. He helped start up another local newspaper that was tailored for Japanese-Americans, and he served as the editor of the Chinese section. Three years before he died, he had become the president of the company that owned the paper.
But Shimizu knows that the prospect of recovery may not be available to all of the migrant children who have been so deeply traumatized by the separations from their parents.
“I can’t really imagine the process you would have to go through to become whole — they’ve just been so injured,” Shimizu said. “The longer this goes on, the harder the journey will be for them.”