What Does the Japanese American Experience Tell Us About the Proposed Muslim Registry?

L to R: Hiroshi Motomura, Ali Noorani, Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, and Ann Burroughs.

On January 18, JANM was pleased to partner with Zócalo Public Square and UCLA to present a panel discussion addressing the question, What Does the Japanese American Experience Tell Us About the Proposed Muslim Registry? JANM’s own Interim President and CEO, Ann Burroughs, moderated an extensive talk that featured Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, UCLA’s George and Sakaye Aratani Chair in Japanese American Incarceration, Redress, and Community; Ali Noorani, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum; and Hiroshi Motomura, UCLA’s Susan Westerberg Prager Professor of Law and author of the award-winning books Immigration Outside the Law (2014) and Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States (2006).

The panel discussion, organized as part of the museum’s Tateuchi Public Program series, addressed a topic that has been important to JANM’s work since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Quickly recognizing a dangerously hysterical political climate that threatened the civil rights of innocent Muslim Americans—eerily similar to the climate that led to the imprisonment of 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans during World War II—JANM’s leadership reached out to Muslim Americans in the months following 9/11, building strong coalitions with community representatives, sharing resources, offering counsel, and helping them to establish the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Recent public statements by President-elect Donald Trump and several of his supporters have again raised the idea of a registry tracking all Americans with ties to the Muslim religion. Disturbingly, some of them have even cited the Japanese American incarceration as a “precedent” for such an action. Statements like this reveal a gross ignorance of history; as part of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the US government formally apologized for the incarceration, admitting that it was “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership,” and awarded monetary compensation to each incarcerated family.

Last night’s discussion confronted the question of a Muslim registry head on, examining it in light of the historical perspective afforded by the Japanese American experience. Burroughs opened the discussion by noting that the idea of a Muslim registry is commonly framed as a tactic designed to keep citizens safe; she asked the panelists if such registries do, in fact, keep people safe. The answer was a resounding no. Hirabayashi noted that numerous registries were kept of Japanese Americans, but none of them turned up evidence of espionage or other wrongdoing. Motomura pointed out that the Bush administration created the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) in 2002, which turned out to be, in his estimation, an ineffectual “immigration sweep.” Noorani added that although President Obama rescinded the registry in December, it could easily be reinstated by the Trump administration.

The rest of the discussion weighed various aspects of current and past public policy, and lessons that can be extracted from history. As with all Zócalo Public Square programs, the event was recorded in its entirety and will be available for viewing on their website soon. In the meantime, as noted by Zócalo writer Reed Johnson, a key takeaway from the discussion was to be prepared for the very real possibility of a “trigger moment” occurring—like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which led to the US’s entry into World War II—that will likely set existing security apparatuses into motion and activate questionable public policy.

Although the discussion was at times foreboding, Motomura tried to strike a positive balance by recognizing that much progress has been made in the last 75 years; ideas that were considered “exotic” back then, such as LGBTQ rights, are commonplace now.

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