Family separation. Detainees living in uncertainty, wondering why they are being held, where they are being held, where their loved ones are, and when they will be released.
This isn’t a scene from 2018 or 2019. This is a scene from seven decades ago when Japanese citizens living in the U.S. and Japanese Americans were all told to report themselves for ‘relocation’ during World War II.
One of those relocation camps was the Crystal City Internment Camp, about a two-hour drive southwest of San Antonio.
Former child survivors of the Crystal City camp have seen dangerous parallels between the peril facing today’s asylum seekers and what their families experienced in the 1940s.
Kyoshi Ina, 77, is a former child detainee at the Crystal City concentration camp. “I was born in the concentration camp in Topaz, Utah in 1942,” Ina said. “We had a questionnaire about our loyalty, and my father answered ‘no, no.’ So we went to the segregation camp in Tule Lake. We were there from 1942 to 1943. My father was sent away. We stayed another year, then we came back down to Crystal City.”
Ina’s sister Satsuki was born in the Tule Lake camp in California. Their parents were American citizens, but they renounced it in protest.
Kazumu ‘Kaz’ Naganuma’s family lived in Peru during the war. Many Japanese traveled to the South American country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for economic opportunities. During the war, the U.S. ordered the deportation of Japanese and German nationals living in Latin American countries for “hemispheric security.”
“We were brought here by the FBI,” Naganuma said. “This is, again, at gunpoint. They gave my dad three days to get everything. We actually got nothing because we couldn’t bring hardly anything. They separated my dad and my oldest brother.”
Naganuma, the youngest of seven children, was only four months old. His family was put on a cargo ship, and after landing in New Orleans, they were put in a train with blacked out windows that took them to Crystal City.
“When we arrived to the camp, my mother thought she was in Japan because the people that greeted us were Japanese,” Naganuma said. “It turned out they were the bus drivers that took us to the Crystal City camp.”
More to the story: Kazumu Naganuma Family Story (With permission of the Naganuma family)
On March 30, a group of six Crystal City child survivors joined other detention camp survivors and their descendants on a pilgrimage to the former segregation facility.
The South Texas camp was the largest internment facility in the U.S., and the only one built for families. Sprawling across hundreds of acres surrounded by barbed wire fencing and guard towers, the camp also held German and Italian detainees.
All that’s left of the camp is a grassy field the size of a small public park dotted by about a half-dozen concrete foundations – all that’s left of the cottage houses where families lived. The land is now owned by the Crystal City Independent School District and the city itself.
Reverend Ronald Kobata of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco led a Japanese Buddhist meditation ceremony on the concrete-covered shallow remains of the Japanese swimming pool, where many detainees came to cool off in the South Texas heat. The former Crystal City child survivors lit incense in a purification ritual.
After the ceremony, camp survivors and descendants made their way by bus to nearby Dilley. The South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley held upwards of 2400 mostly-Central American asylum-seeking mothers and children.
The survivors and descendants of Crystal City and other segregation camps felt history was repeating itself.
Michael Ishii, a descendant of concentration camp detainees, helped organize the Crystal City pilgrimage and Dilley protest. He addressed over 100 protesters who lined a stretch of Texas State Highway 85 just outside the facility. He told them he and his fellow descendants were not just opposing family detention and separation, “but also for the healing of our people who were also incarcerated. So it’s important for us to be here.”
Thousands of colorful origami paper cranes fluttered in the March winds along the wire fencing and barbed wire surrounding the Dilley facility. Cranes are symbols of happiness, good fortune, and transformation. The cranes were folded, linked into chains, and mailed from all across the U.S., including San Quentin Prison.
“We asked for 10,000 cranes because in traditional culture, the 10,000 things means ‘more than we can count,’” Ishii said. “Well, we received more than 25,000 cranes.”
The protest featured chants, music in the form of traditional taiko drums, and proclamations of rage and hope.
At the end of the protest, Crystal City survivor Satsuki Ina invited the crowd to sing along to the traditional children’s song, “Kutsu ga naru,” which roughly translates to “Our Shoes Ring.” It was a song Japanese parents sang to their children in their camps.
The protesters plan to return in November.