Judith Armatta

Judith Armatta is a lawyer, journalist and human rights activist


“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana.

I read a story in the New York Times today (January 17, 2017): “America or Mexico? An Agonizing Decision,” by Caitlin Dickerson. Rachel McCormick, born in the U.S., and Irvi Cruz, born in Mexico and immigrated illegally to the U.S., met in the U.S., married, and had two girls, Sarah, 4, and Anna, 2. Irvi is not a U.S. citizen and cannot apply for citizenship through his wife because he has traveled back and forth to Mexico several times. To apply now, he would have to leave the U.S. for 10 years.

With Trump threatening to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, Irvi and Rachel are faced with a fateful decision: do they remain in the U.S. waiting for the day Irvi is deported or do they pack up and go to Mexico, a strange land where Rachel and the girls will feel a perplexing and, at times, frightening displacement. As Ms. Dickerson wrote: “So the couple were boxed in by two bad options: take a chance on a new life in the small, struggling town in Mexico where Irvi grew up, or stay here and try to ignore the shaky ground beneath them.”

Nine million families of mixed parentage face this same dilemma. This dilemma is not new, though I knew nothing about its forerunner until I began reading The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II by Jan Jarboe Russell. In addition to forcing 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry living in the U.S. (62% were American citizens) into concentration camps during WWII, the US government arrested and imprisoned Japanese, German, and Italian noncitizen fathers who were on J. Edgar Hoover’s list of “dangerous enemy aliens,” begun in 1936 on orders from President Franklin Roosevelt. There were thousands of them. Their property was confiscated. Their families left destitute. No criminal charges were brought. They received no due process, no legal representation, no trial. The arrestees were not allowed to see the evidence or confront the witnesses against them (some were spiteful neighbors or coworkers). Nor could they appeal.

Immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, they were arrested and taken from their homes, families, work, and communities. These detainees were sent to a special camp at Crystal City, Texas where they could be reunited with their families who were U.S. citizens. The families had to choose whether to join their loved ones in a prison camp and give up their freedom, or remain separated for the unknown duration of the war and possibly forever. The main purpose of the camp was to gather people the U.S. could exchange for “important” U.S. POWs (diplomats, businessmen, doctors) held in Germany, Japan, and Italy. The program was informally known as “quiet passage.”

The U.S. wasn’t content with “enemy aliens” and their families living in the U.S. They needed more bodies for the one-to-one exchange demanded by Germany. Our government made agreements with 13 Latin American countries to deport Germans, Japanese, and Italians living within them to the U.S., where they would be imprisoned in the Crystal City camp until they could be exchanged. These Latin American immigrants had no ties to the U.S. It was a shocking case of overreach.

Families were faced with a choice: to join their noncitizen parent or husband to be included in what was euphemistically called “repatriation,” or to break up the family, possibly forever. If they joined him in repatriation, they would find themselves in countries they were unfamiliar with, countries at war, where people were starving and could not help, where they had nowhere to live, no means to earn a living. Some died of starvation and illness.

Ms. Russell interviewed a number of the children whose parents were forced to make this choice and tells their tragic stories in this excellent book. Quiet passage was a secret program. It provides a template and a warning. As Ms. Russell concludes: “[T]he issues in the book—the roundup of immigrants, prisoner exchange, the danger of scapegoating in a climate of fear, the trauma of war—are as real today as they were in 1942.”