A Colorado Legislator Just Tried To Justify Japanese-American Incarceration. Let's All Tell Him He's Wrong.

03/23/2017 01:16 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2017
Republican Rep. Phil Covarrubias attempting to justify incarceration of Japanese Americans while explaining his opposition to
Screenshot via ColoradoPols
Republican Rep. Phil Covarrubias attempting to justify incarceration of Japanese Americans while explaining his opposition to House Bill 17-1230

You can contact Rep. Philip Covarrubias here.

On March 22, 2017, the Colorado House debated House Bill 17-1230, the Ralph Carr Freedom Defense Act, a bill which is designed to protect “Colorado residents from federal government overreach based on a person’s status.”

The debate over this bill turned hostile, with Republicans trying to remove Gov. Carr’s name from it, and also trying to insert language to penalize sanctuary cities.

However, many in the room were shocked when freshman Rep. Philip Covarrubias, a Republican representative from Adams County, made this outrageous and wholly indefensible statement:

We keep hearing about how things went down with the Japanese people. For anybody who has never been in the heat of combat, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and all of that was going on, there’s no time to ask questions about who’s a citizen and who’s not.

You don’t have that moment in time. You need to regroup. It’s easy to sit up here and say this stuff now. If you’re in that moment, it looks a lot different than being able to be in a nice suit and tie. I hear people saying that we need to respect other people’s rights, and I agree with that. But what about THEM respecting OUR rights, our country and our laws? Because I’m not hearing that up here.

Later in the debate, he continued to distort and exploit Japanese American history, and suggested that the same measures would be justified in modern times against American Muslims. He stated:

I’m wondering why the need for the Ralph Carr to explain Japanese-Americans [sic]. What happened prior to this that kicked this all off? I think we were attacked at Pearl Harbor. We need to look at the Americans that are in fear from terrorism, and all of things that we’ve seen over the last few years especially.

“Everybody’s talking about the ‘immigrants’ being in fear, or the other people being in fear. But what about our own people? What about Florida? What about San Bernardino? What about the things that we need to protect and we hold dear here in our own country? We need to take care of our home here and realize that we have plenty of citizens that are in fear. Yes, do we need a better path? Maybe so. But for right now today the way that the law is and the way that it stands, this is where we’re at. I want to protect us. Thank you.

In a previous case, I had to respond to arguments that no parallels existed. However, the irony is that this time Covarrubias has already insisted that the parallels exist, making my response that much easier.

One part of this is the tired argument that war justifies mass civil liberties violations of tens of thousands of U.S. citizens and their families. The U.S. had already been conducting widespread surveillance of Japanese American communities, and Hoover at the FBI among others confirmed that there was no need for mass incarceration and depriving around 120,000 people of due process among other rights. This was of course confirmed later on in the publication of Personal Justice Denied, which I have referenced multiple times in my past writing. The point is, why should we sacrifice our constitutional ideals by giving into wartime paranoia, when it did not even serve a national security purpose? If we give up those values, what are we fighting for?

Notice how Covarrubias reveals his worldview. What we can see from the first quotation is that to him, Japanese Americans were not Americans then, just as American Muslims are not Americans now, reflected in the literal “us” vs. “them” dichotomy, and the implication that their cultures are not compatible with American society. Nearly every immigrant population has had to deal with the “your culture is incompatible with our society” reaction, and over time virtually every immigrant population has integrated into society, with the major barrier being that caustic xenophobia that attacks anything seen as “foreign.”

Covarrubias is also categorizing immigrants as a subclass of people in the U.S. who do not deserve the same rights as non-immigrants in a time of war or fear, but at the same time saying that it didn’t even matter that some might actually be citizens. This is part of the persistent “othering” of non-white immigrants and their families. Being an immigrant does not make one any less American, because people like Covarrubias do not “own” Americanness.

He seems to contradict himself on the topic of citizenship. In his first statement, he argues that in a time of war, the government should be able to round up both citizens and non-citizens for security reasons, but in the second statement talks about protecting the rights of citizens. This may say the most about his worldview, in that it does not recognize the validity of non-white immigrants becoming naturalized citizens, or their children’s citizenship. Many of the people he is attempting to paint as potential enemies of the U.S. are citizens. Around 80,000 of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II were citizens, while their immigrant parents were barred from citizenship until 1952. Furthermore, many of those citizens he talks about protecting now came as immigrants, or are the children of immigrants. Protecting citizens and non-citizens in the U.S. is not a zero-sum game.

Yes, people are fearful, but exacerbating that wartime fear and hysteria is exactly the wrong way to deal with it. The media and government both played a role in ramping up prejudice towards Japanese Americans to the point that the idea of imprisoning them all seemed reasonable, myths which persist to this day, sadly. The government and media have a duty to fight the misinformation and stereotypes that fuel paranoia, not feed it.

However, there was a governor who stood up to all this. You might be asking yourself, why is this called the Ralph Carr Freedom Defense Act? Who is Ralph Carr?

At the start of World War II, Ralph Carr was governor of Colorado, a Republican with presidential ambitions. Out of all the governors in the Western United States, Carr was the only one to oppose the incarceration of Japanese Americans, opposition based on constitutional reasoning. He felt that the government had no right to imprison citizens without cause, a stance that destroyed his political career and caused people to send him death threats.

In early 1942, nearly 2,000 displaced Japanese Americans came to Colorado early to avoid incarceration, and felt welcomed there thanks to the example set by Governor Carr. While the Japanese-American population declined in the 60s and 70s as families moved back to the West Coast, a surprisingly healthy community thrived there through the 50s. The Japanese American Citizens League even held its first post-war biennial convention in Denver in 1946, where Governor Ralph Carr was presented with a gold pocket watch as thanks for his defense of our families. The watch was inscribed with the message, “In grateful appreciation for your courageous stand for Democratic American principles.”

If any good can come from this unacceptable and indefensible statement by the Colorado State Representative, it is an opportunity for people to discover a bright spot in a time of darkness for civil liberties in American history. People in positions of authority in modern times especially should look at the example set by Governor Ralph Carr, a man who sacrificed his political career to defend constitutional principles, and in doing so, a community that desperately needed hope in a dark time.

Thank you to Gil Asakawa, who made others in the community aware of this issue, and has written in much more detail about Japanese Americans in Colorado.

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