02/24/2012 09:10 am ET Updated Apr 25, 2012

Let's Not Repeat the Mistakes of History

This week we commemorate the 70th anniversary of a shameful and dark chapter in American history. On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which provided the legal authority for the forced relocation and incarceration of 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent -- the vast majority of whom were citizens.

The anniversary of this tragic national mistake provides a teachable moment for our nation on the dangers of stereotyping, prejudice, and racial profiling -- even as we face the very real, continuing threat of terrorism.

Coming just 10 weeks after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt's executive order was issued against the backdrop of widespread, baseless fears that Americans of Japanese ancestry might pose a threat to the U.S -- anxiety that was certainly fed by a long history of prejudice and xenophobia directed against Japanese Americans.

Executive Order 9066 authorized the creation of military zones for Japanese citizens and resident aliens, which paved the way for the forced expulsion of 120,000 American citizens of Japanese descent from their homes to camps throughout the western U.S. -- where they were held behind barbed wire without evidence documenting a single individual's disloyalty towards America.

Those incarcerated in the camps were uprooted from their communities, separated from their families, their homes, and their possessions, and lost their personal liberties and freedoms until the end of the war.

Tragically, the president's executive order was bolstered by additional congressional enactments. And when the constitutionality of these actions was challenged in two main cases before the U.S. Supreme Court -- Hirabayashi v. U.S., and Korematsu v. U.S. -- the court held that these clearly discriminatory actions by the government were, in fact, justified and constitutional.

Even Japanese Americans serving in the armed forces were segregated from their units -- and a predominantly Japanese American unit was formed -- the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

In April 1976, President Gerald R. Ford finally rescinded Executive Order 9066. And four years later, President Jimmy Carter signed legislation creating the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to investigate the impact of the executive order and the internment camps.

That commission issued its nearly 500-page report, Personal Justice Denied, in 1983. The report concluded that, "The promulgation of Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions which followed from it -- detention, ending detention and ending exclusion -- were not driven by analysis of military conditions. The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership."

The commission also called for Congress to apologize for these injustices. That recommendation was fulfilled in 1988, when Congress approved the Civil Liberties Act, which provided a formal apology and limited reparations to the Japanese citizens and resident aliens that had been sent to internment camps.

Now, in 2012, a divisive and polarizing debate over immigration reform, as well as efforts to stereotype Muslim Americans as potential terrorists after 9/11, threaten the progress we have made in promoting respect and understanding among all Americans and the lessons we have learned from the forced internment of Japanese Americans.

Though America is, as then-Senator John F. Kennedy wrote in his famous 1958 essay, "A Nation of Immigrants," the current white-hot, political debate over the contours of immigration reform has resulted in hateful rhetoric, profiling, stereotyping, and dehumanizing language about Hispanics, Muslims, and new immigrants to America.

Make no mistake -- there is a direct connection between the tenor of this political debate and the daily lives of immigrants in our communities. Harsh enforcement-only restrictions have fostered fear, mistrust, and discrimination against immigrants and those perceived to be immigrants.

And the proliferation of anti-Sharia laws directed against Muslims are an unnecessary response to a non-existent problem in America. The xenophobic references to immigrants as criminals, as a threat to our safety, and damaging to American culture have too-frequently derailed meaningful policy debate -- and stand in the way of the kind of reforms Americans desperately seek to fix the nation's broken immigration system.

In many communities, February 19th is annually recognized as the Day of Remembrance for the Japanese American community. Jewish Americans annually commemorate the horrors of the Holocaust during the spring, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom Hashoah. Clearly, both our communities can celebrate together the distance we have come from February 1942.

But, especially at this time, all Americans have a stake in remembering -- and learning lessons -- from the past.

Abraham H. Foxman is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. Floyd Mori is National Executive Director of the Japanese American Citizens League.