There has been a history of problems in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. Arizona is home to two such ICE detention centers, one in Florence and the other in Eloy. Unfortunately, Arizona also had a part in the dark history of housing other immigrants, and even American citizens in detention centers nearly 70 years ago. During World War II, Arizona was home to internment camps holding thousands of people of Japanese descent for years.
In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order which authorized the military to designate military areas from which any person could be excluded. The military issued over 100 orders that only applied to civilians of Japanese ancestry. The order authorized the removal and incarceration of over 110,000 people. About 65% of the people placed in the camps were US citizens. Over half of the detainees were children.
It was not only the Japanese born who faced imprisonment because of their heritage, but American born Japanese, or “Nisei,” were relocated from their homes and schools to desert camps. Some fought back through appealing to the courts, without success. Gordon Hirabayashi of Seattle, took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. After the Court ruled against him, he was sentenced to Catalina Federal Honor Camp, a prison camp located in the on the road up to Mount Lemmon. Because he refused the government relocation, he hitchhiked all the way from Spokane, Washington to Tucson.
The Poston War Relocation Camp, in La Paz County, was the largest internment camp operating during World War II. The population of the Poston camp was over 17,000 comprised mostly of people from southern California, and at the time would have been the third largest “city” in Arizona.
Just south of Phoenix, the Gila River Relocation Center housed over 13,000, primarily from northern California and Los Angeles. Through farm labor, the Gila center became an agricultural powerhouse, and produced 20 percent of the food sent to all the relocation centers.
Both camps were built on Indian land, despite the objections of tribal councils. The camps operated for three years, from 1942 to 1945. All of the civilian internment camps closed in 1945, leaving thousands of people to find their way back to their homes and their lives that they had left nearly three years earlier.
Facing the dire situation of being interned in the middle of the Arizona desert, hundreds of miles from their homes, and with no timeline in sight for release, detainees sought to improve their plight. The detainees built their own schools since no arrangements had been made to continue education for the tens of thousands of interned children. A number of baseball leagues were started and played within the camps. In 1945, the Tucson High baseball team even played a game against the Japanese Butte High, with the Japanese winning 11-10 in the 10th inning.
It was not until 1983 that the government issued a report concluding that there was no military necessity for the mass imprisonment, but rather it was due to racial prejudice, war hysteria, and failed political leadership.
As we face national outcry over the many immigrant minors and families facing the harsh border crossing to escape violence and poverty, once again detention centers are filling up with immigrant families. Living conditions remain difficult, and under regular criticism. Unfortunately, despite the conditions, more and larger family detention centers continue to be built.