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On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, placing a curfew on people of Japanese descent who were within a designated military area.  The head of the Western Defense Command, General John DeWitt, had pushed for such a restriction as a response to the danger of sabotage and espionage.

Although the order did not expressly create a power to confine, it was used to force up to 120,000 people, the majority of them US citizens, to relocate to prison camps in the interior of the country.  Many had to move with only 48 hours’ notice and remained in the detention camps for more than two years. 

The US Supreme Court upheld a curfew on all Japanese and Japanese-Americans in the 1943 case of Hirabayashi v. United States, and upheld the evacuation order in the 1944 case, Korematsu v. United States. Justice Frank Murphy, a dissenter in the Korematsu case, condemned the Court’s “legalization of racism” and General DeWitt’s characterization of all individuals of Japanese descent as “subversives” who belonged to an “enemy race.”

On the same day as it decided Korematsu, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Ex Parte Endo that Mitsuye Endo, an American citizen of Japanese descent who had been placed in a detention center, was a “loyal and law-abiding citizen” who should be released.  

Decades later, the US government recognized the internment policy as one of the low points of our history.  In February 1976, President Gerald Ford issued a proclamation apologizing to the Japanese-American community. A few years later, in 1980, Congress issued a report denying that there had been any military necessity to force Japanese residents and American citizens from their homes. It cited racism and wartime hysteria as the prime causes behind the “grave injustice” done to people of Japanese descent. In 1988, Congress established a   $1.6 billion reparations trust fund, which was eventually distributed to more than 80,000 internees and their heirs. They received payments of $20,000 each.   

During the 1980s, Gordon Hirabayashi and Fred Korematsu went back to court to have their original convictions overturned. They submitted documents demonstrating that the Justice Department knew, but did not inform the judiciary, that there had in fact been no incidents of Japanese-American  espionage during World War II. The court conceded that the General had been motivated by racial prejudice. 

As Japanese Americans were being exonerated, the Justice Department was reviewing a document called “Alien Terrorists and Undesirables: A Contingency Plan” produced by the inter-agency Alien Border Control Committee. The 1986 Contingency Plan recommended building a detention camp in Oakdale, Louisiana where “alien activists” can be held pending their deportation from the US. Those singled out as “undesirables” were students and visitors from Arab countries.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.