Civil Liberties Act (1988) (Major Acts of Congress)
Eric K. Yamamoto and Liann Y. Ebesugawa
Excerpt from the Civil Liberties Act
With regard to individuals of Japanese ancestry. The Congress recognizes that, as described by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, a grave injustice was done to both citizens and permanent resident aliens of Japanese ancestry by the evacuation, relocation, and internment of civilians during World War II. As the Commission documents, these actions were carried out without adequate security reasons and without any acts of espionage or sabotage documented by the Commission, and were motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership. The excluded individuals of Japanese ancestry suffered enormous damages, both material and intangible, and there were incalculable losses in education and job training, all of which resulted in significant human suffering for which appropriate compensation has not been made. For these fundamental violations of the basic civil liberties and constitutional rights of these individuals of Japanese ancestry, the Congress apologizes on behalf of the Nation.
The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (P.L. 100-383), stands as a landmark. Through the act, Congress for the first time authorized a presidential apology to an entire group of Americans: Japanese Americans imprisoned by the United States because of their race during World War II without charges, trial, or evidence of necessity. Congress also mandated $1.2 billion in reparations (payment to compensate for damages) to these Japanese Americans and an additional amount to Aleut and Pribilof Islanders who had also been unlawfully imprisoned.
Following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, U.S. government suspicions and public sentiment turned against Japanese Americans. Business leaders, the media, and government officials questioned the loyalty of Japanese Americans even though they were solid American citizens. Most were born, educated, and employed in the United States. Nevertheless, West Coast military commander General John DeWitt asserted that Japanese Americans were disloyal simply because of their Japanese heritage and he claimed they posed a threatened to national security, even though no Japanese American had engaged in any act of espionage or sabotage. DeWitt further stated that "a Jap is a Jap ... and [despite American birth, education, and
The government's racial exclusion and internment (imprisonment during wartime) actions undermined the Constitution. The Constitution's Fifth Amendment ensures U.S. citizens protection against the federal government's taking of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. It is also interpreted to guarantee equal protection of all citizens under the law. Without charges, hearings, or evidence of individual or racial group disloyalty, the government, with armed military standing by, removed 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes, forcing them to abandon businesses, jobs, and belongings. They were first detained in makeshift assembly centers, with many sleeping in horse stalls at race tracks. From there, the government dispersed them to nine desolate internment prisons, encircled by barbed wire, in the western interior. Specifically, the internment prisons were located in California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas. The camps were located in desert areas except for the two camps in Arkansas which were located in swamplands. Japanese Americans left their homes not knowing where they were going, for how long, on what grounds, or whether they would survive. More than 1,800 people did not survive, and those who did suffered deep, lasting psychological wounds, along with financial devastation.
THE REPARATIONS MOVEMENT
The wounds were so deep that the Japanese American community refused to discuss the internment for many years. In the late 1960s during the heyday of the Civil Rights movement, a reparations movement emerged. Yet it was still another two decades before Japanese Americans took legal action, in two different kinds of lawsuits, to support the reparations movement.
The first type of lawsuit, in 1983, was coram nobis litigation, a rare legal procedure allowing the reopening of old cases of current importance. It was initiated by Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Min Yasui, who had been convicted during World War II for refusing to be interned. The Supreme Court had said at the time that the internment was constitutional because military necessity justified it. Forty years later, the coram nobis proceedings sought reversal of their convictions based on startling government World War II documents found in dust-covered boxes in 1981. Those documents revealed the following:
- before the internment all government intelligence services involved in the issue at the time had determined that West Coast Japanese Americans as a group posed no serious danger and that there was no basis for mass internment;
- the military based its internment decision on invidious racial stereotypes about Japanese Americans; and
- the military, the Department of Justice, and the Department of War concealed and destroyed key evidence, deliberately misled the Supreme Court, and fabricated the military necessity justification for the internment.
Based on this evidence the federal courts in the coram nobis cases found "manifest injustice," overturned the convictions of Korematsu, Hirabayashi, and Yasui, and thereby laid the legal foundation for reparations.
The second suit was a class action damages lawsuit, Hohri v. United States, filed by former internees to obtain compensation for the material and psychological harms of the internment. Although the courts ultimately dismissed that case because it was filed too long after the events, the suit led to greater public awareness of and education about the real internment story.
The reparations movement gained moral force from former internees and Asian American organizations together with a wide range of groups, including civil liberties groups, the NAACP, churches, veterans and labor associations, and even local governments. This support helped Asian American members of Congress from California and Hawaii to push through legislation creating the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. The commission's 1983 report, Personal Justice Denied, concluded that the causes of the internment were race prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.
In response to a variety of reparations effortshe lawsuits, the commission's hearings and report, extensive lobbying by diverse groups, and persistent media reportingongress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.
Most important for many Japanese Americans, the act called for a formal presidential apology. It also authorized reparations of $20,000 for each surviving internee who was a U.S. citizen or legal resident immigrant at the time of internment. A 1992 amendment to the 1988 act remedied difficult questions of eligibility (for instance, for those barred from their homes but not incarcerated) and key problems with funding (it eliminated the need for yearly appropriations of money by establishing a fund from which reparations could be drawn).
The Office of Redress Administration (ORA), created by the act, implemented the reparations program. The act authorized the ORA to identify, register, verify, and administer reparation payments to eligible individuals within a ten-year period. The ORA worked effectively with the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (NCRR) and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) to provide information about reparations through Japanese American newspapers, community meetings, and newsletters. Former internees submitted over 60,000 reparations applications as a result of these collective efforts.
The 1988 act also established the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund to "sponsor research and public educational activities, and to publish and distribute the hearings, findings, and recommendations of the Commission." Public education became a major dimension of redress. Projects sponsored by the Education Fund produced high school, college, and law school curricula on the internment and civil liberties; documentaries on internment camp life; oral histories of survivors; and new research on the accommodation of national security and civil liberties.
The redress of wrongs committed against Japanese Americans was about much more than money. The Civil Liberties Act recognized the United States's grave injustice against its own citizens on account of their race, and it acknowledged the need to repair lasting wounds, both to Japanese Americans and to the Constitution.
Maki, Mitchell T., Harry H. L. Kitano, and S. Megan Berthold. Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Yamamoto, Eric K. "Friend or Foe or Something Else: Social Meanings of Redress and Reparations." Denver Journal of International Law and Policy 223 (1992).
Yamamoto, Eric K., et al. Race, Rights and Reparation: Law and the Japanese American Internment. New York: Aspen Publishers, 2001.