“This is not who we are as a nation.” I’ve heard versions of this statement ad nauseum since Donald Trump began his presidential campaign nearly three years ago. Unfortunately, American history doesn’t support the claim at all. We have been the kind of nation that commits unspeakable sins in the name of military readiness, economic stability, and national security. In just the past century, we’ve held Japanese Americans in internment camps, deported hundreds of thousands of Mexican Americans, and now our government is trying to keep Muslims out of the country. At the core of each of these actions is bigotry disguised in the language of public safety. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this morning in Trump v. Hawaii—a case that will resolve the dispute over whether Trump’s Muslim ban is constitutional. It’s also a key test of whether the country has bettered itself enough to avoid the kinds of moral errors that we’ve made repeatedly since the nation’s founding.
Trump has pointed to President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Mexican Repatriation” program to justify some of his immigration policies. Roosevelt’s “program” resulted in the deportation of up to two million U.S. citizens of Mexican descent, all in the name of economic stability.
In defending his Muslim ban, he has cited Roosevelt’s executive action which authorized the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. “Take a look at what F.D.R. did many years ago,” Trump said when he first announced his Muslim ban. “He did the same thing.” Roosevelt’s actions resulted in over 120,000 women, children and men of Japanese descent, the majority of them U.S. citizens, to be held in camps indefinitely. And the Supreme Court sided with him.
In 1944, the Court ruled in the landmark case Korematsu vs United States that the rights of U.S. citizens were less important than keeping the country safe from espionage, though Japanese-Americans were not in fact spilling national secrets.
The creation of internment camps by the U.S. government, and the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold their use, are sources of enduring national shame. In his Korematsu dissent, Justice Robert Jackson called the Court’s decision, “a loaded weapon ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward [racial discrimination as] a plausible claim of an urgent need.” A commission ordered by Jimmy Carter concluded that the executive order had been a result of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
Despite the near universal view that rounding up Japanese-Americans and holding them in camps was wrong and immoral, the Supreme Court has never officially overturned the decision, and though his lawyers may be clever enough not to cite Korematsu as precedent directly, Trump has used it as moral justification for discriminating against Muslims.
The decision to imprison and deport U.S. citizens is in some important ways different from the decision to keep foreign nationals out of the country. But the reality is that the Muslim ban is affecting U.S. citizens. If a U.S. citizen wants to reunite with her mother who is an Iranian national, the ban prohibits her from doing so. The stories we heard at airports throughout the country during the first and second implementations of the Muslim ban were overwhelmingly ones of Americans being separated from their loved ones.
Karen Korematsu, the daughter Fred Korematsu, who was the named plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, will be in the courtroom as the oral arguments unfold. She will be a visible reminder for the justices of a disgraceful decision that still stands on their books. Will the Court decide once again that the government’s bigotry is legal so long as national security is invoked? Will the United States continue to be a nation where discrimination is acceptable on the thinnest of pretexts? Or will the justices do what their predecessors failed to do, and uphold founding principles?
The United States should be a place where people of all national origins, religions, and backgrounds enjoy the same rights, inalienably. We have never fully lived up to that ideal, but later this year, when the Court issues its decision we will either come closer to it or bend away from justice once again.