Some Japanese-Americans Wrongfully Imprisoned During WWII Oppose Census Question In the 1940s, the U.S. government used census data to locate and wrongfully incarcerate Japanese-Americans. Some are now speaking out against plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Some Japanese-Americans Wrongfully Imprisoned During WWII Oppose Census Question

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There's a legal battle growing over a controversial new question on the 2020 census. It asks, is this person a citizen of the United States? A ruling in one of the lawsuits over the question is expected soon from a federal judge in New York.

Critics of the question have been speaking out for months, including a group of U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has their story.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Eileen Okada was 5 years old when the U.S. government forced her and her family to live in a stall made for horses.

EILEEN OKADA: I remember the stench. They cleaned it out, of course, but didn't scrub it down. The smell was still there.

WANG: This was in 1942, months after this attack upended life for families like Okada's.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin. The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii by air, President Roosevelt has just announced.

WANG: The U.S. government responded, in part, by allowing confidential Census Bureau data identifying individual Japanese-Americans to be released to other federal agencies during World War II. The Census Bureau also provided information about where Japanese-Americans lived.

That information was not confidential and was used to round up around 120,000 people of Japanese descent, mainly U.S. citizens. They were wrongfully locked up at fairgrounds, racetracks and, eventually, remote prison camps.

OKADA: I remember asking my mother why we were here. She simply said, because we're Japanese. I remember thinking it was not good to be Japanese, and I carried that for a long time.

WANG: It was a kind of experience that was also part of the childhood of former Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta. He remembers asking his older brother to explain posters he saw in their neighborhood about what the government called the evacuation of all persons of Japanese ancestry, quote, "both alien and non-alien."

NORMAN MINETA: And I said, what's non-alien? And he said, that's you. My own government - the government of the United States of America wouldn't call me a citizen.

WANG: The federal government has formally apologized for actions that it said were motivated by racial prejudice and wartime hysteria. But Mineta says he and other survivors still worry that confidential census information could be misused again. That's why Mineta, Eileen Okada and her two sisters joined a friend of the court brief for the citizenship question lawsuits in New York.

The Trump administration insists the question was added to the 2020 census to better protect the voting rights of racial minorities. But Mineta says he's concerned asking about citizenship on the census was intended to scare immigrants.

MINETA: One of the things it does is intimidate people. All I could think of was what it was like for evacuees to be facing a census, and whether or not that information could be used.

WANG: NPR has reached out to the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, and to the Justice Department, which is representing the administration in the citizenship question lawsuits. Both declined to comment on the friend of the court brief.

But during a recent speech, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross addressed the confidentiality issue. He stressed there is long-standing federal law that prohibits the Census Bureau from releasing information identifying individuals until 72 years after the data are collected.


WILBUR ROSS: By law, the census is strictly confidential - strictly confidential.

WANG: But Sharon Sakamoto, one of Eileen Okada's sisters, remembers this has not always been the case. Sakamoto was born inside a prison camp in Idaho after the government forced her family to leave Seattle.

SHARON SAKAMOTO: I keep wanting the words, justice for all, to work.

WANG: After her family was released, Sakamoto says her parents continued to raise her and her siblings to respect their country and their government.

SAKAMOTO: Just because we say, justice for all, I have to still look at how we're functioning and how we're acting. I think we have to be watchful.

WANG: Sakamoto says she'll be watching to see what happens to the citizenship question. It's an issue the Supreme Court is expected to take on in the new year. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.


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