More than 2,000 people of Japanese descent who were held in camps during World War II are running out of time to seek compensation for the years when America “took away (their) liberty,” Attorney General Janet Reno said Thursday.
While more than 81,000 people have each received the $20,000 compensation granted in the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, government records show that some 2,200 people may still be eligible, Reno said.
In the landmark law, the United States government formally apologized to the Japanese Americans who were forced to leave their homes and live in internment camps during World War II, and it pledged to pay $1.25 billion to more than 60,000 survivors and their heirs.
“This was a tragic chapter in the history of our nation,” Reno said at her weekly press conference. “It a was time when we took away the liberty of an entire community of Americans.”
She said the restitution program created by the 1988 law will end on Aug. 10 and that potential claimants should file by April 10 to allow for the six to eight weeks it takes the Justice Department to investigate the case.
“We have been working hard to reach out to every possible claimant, and will continue to do so,” said DeDe Greene, head of the Office of Redress Administration, which is charged with managing the 10-year program.
So far the ORA has paid out nearly $1.65 billion in reparations to the 81,278 claimants. The program, however, has accumulated interest on its money and has more than $19 million remaining to compensate any additional eligible applicants, Greene said.
In the months after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, hysteria swept the West Coast. Thousands of people prepared for an attack on California as rumors spread about Japanese ships being spotted off Santa Barbara and San Francisco.
The hysteria changed the way many people looked at their Japanese-American neighbors. What would they do in the event of an attack? Would they serve as a fifth column? Would they sabotage military bases?
The fear resulted in Executive Order 9066 signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942, which authorized the secretary of war to evacuate citizens and aliens of Japanese descent from the West Coast as a security measure against sabotage and espionage.
From San Diego to Seattle, people of Japanese heritage were ordered to leave the West Coast and enter camps elsewhere around the country. Those who refused, even those who were American citizens, were also forced into the camps.
By the time the war was over in 1945, 120,000 people had been relocated to 10 camps, most forced to leave behind homes and businesses.
In addition to being held in camps, Japanese who had immigrated to the United States could not become naturalized citizens, although their children who were born here were allowed to keep their citizenship. Six of every 10 people who went to the camps were U.S. citizens born in the country.
The law allowed internees, whether or not they were U.S. citizens, to leave the camps if they signed loyalty oaths and found a sponsor, but such action was nearly impossible in the suspicious atmosphere of wartime America.
Despite the harsh treatment, more than 10,000 Japanese Americans volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army. Their units fighting in Italy eventually became some of the most decorated in the history of the United States, with the 100th Battalion sustaining such high casualty rates that it became known as the “Purple Heart Battalion.”
After the war ended and suspicions against Japanese Americans subsided, many groups began lobbying Congress to acknowledge one of the nation’s more glaring lapses in civil liberties. The effort ended in passage of the 1988 act.