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Drawing Parallels Between Immigrant Experiences

Pacific Citizen, News report, Lynda Lin, Associate Editor Posted: Oct 01, 2008

Sonoma County JACLers pass a resolution to support a sanctuary ordinance that ensures safety for all its residents.

Racially profiling, unjust police interrogations and harassment based on skin color - the state of affairs in her own neighborhood all seems too dangerously familiar for Mei Nakano. For the last few years, news headlines have blared reports about local law enforcement officials singling out members of the Latino community in arrests and raids.

Remembering a time not long ago when members of the Japanese American community were treated in a similar way, Nakano along with other members of Sonoma County JACL decided it was time to speak up in favor of making their county a refuge from discrimination.

"I grew up under a cloud of race hate, as did most, if not all, second generation Japanese in this country," said Nakano. "I know what it feels like to be targeted as an 'undesirable' in a society that touts freedom and opportunity, the ability to 'be all that you can be,' to have your dreams deferred."

During their Aug. 1 meeting, the Sonoma County JACL passed a "County of Refuge" resolution to ensure that all its immigrants, both documented and undocumented, can live free from discrimination.

"Lawmakers, we know, commonly hold the power to shape the hearts and minds of their constituents, in this case, generating fear and suspicion against 'aliens,'" said Nakano. "Unfortunately, that process seems to be gaining momentum today, and fear and suspicion appear to be intensifying against another group of new immigrants."

The resolution, which calls on the Board of Supervisors to designate Sonoma County as a "County of Refuge," was followed by a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern Calif. (ACLU-NC) against the county Sheriff's Department for unlawful detentions and racial profiling of Latinos suspected of being undocumented immigrants.

Civil Rights Breaches

Several other Northern California cities including San Francisco, Oakland and Richmond have affirmed a "County of Refuge" designation, which bars local law enforcement from using county funds to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents enforce civil immigration laws.

California doesn't allow local sheriffs and police to enforce immigration law. But for the last three years, the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department has been working with federal immigration officials to stop and search people who look Latino, interrogate them about their immigration status and jail them without legal basis, according to the ACLU-NC lawsuit filed on behalf of the Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County and three victims.

jaclSonoma County residents Francisco Sanchez-Lopez, Christyan Sonato-Vega and Samuel Medel Moyado were all stopped and questioned by sheriff's deputies about their immigration status and their gang affiliations.
"None of our plaintiffs were gang members," said Julia Harumi Mass, ACLU-NC staff attorney. "They were young Latino men. That doesn't make you a gang member."

Sonato-Vega was trying to buy a cake at a Santa Rosa bakery when he was stopped, searched and interrogated by two deputy sheriffs last July. A month later, he was arrested on his suspected immigration status and held at the county jail without receiving notice of the charges against him.
"Our chief concern is to protect the Constitution," said Richard Coshnear, an immigration lawyer and member of the Committee for Immigrant Rights. "It's about racial profiling and using gangs and criminal activities as excuses for civil rights breaches."

When local law enforcement officers engage in immigration enforcement, it creates a sense of fear within the community they are required to protect, said Mass. Many fear calling for help.

"It's a real safety concern for the immigrant community and the community at large," she added.
Sheriff Bill Cogbill denied the allegations before seeing a copy of the lawsuit, according to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. He was served with the lawsuit on Sept. 4, but did not respond to the Pacific Citizen's request for comment.

Sonoma County Activism

Supporting immigrants' rights is nothing new for the Sonoma County JACL. Over the years, their members have actively marched and rallied in support of this very same issue. They worked with other coalition groups to support the "Know Your Rights" campaign, which produced wallet-size cards with instructions on what to do if stopped by law enforcement officials.

In August, Coshnear and Mass were invited to attend the JACL NCWNP meeting to talk about the county Sheriff Department's racial profiling issues.

"People showed a great deal of interest," said Coshnear about the meeting. "JACL members are sensitive to the denial of due process and arbitrary detention."

Many JACLers can just look to the experiences of the Issei and memories of World War II for examples of parallel experiences with recent immigrants.

Michael Bryant, a Sonoma County JACL member who worked on the chapter's "Giri" oral history project, noticed the similarities in the stories told by Nisei members of their community.

"One of the things that jumped out was the correlation between what happened then and now ... the fear-mongering and racial profiling that overlap into immigration history," said Bryant. "It was a clear picture that the same things were happening again."

For decades, racist laws prevented the Issei from becoming U.S. citizens and owning land. And almost immediately after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, FBI agents worked with local law enforcement to round up mostly Issei men they considered to be threats to national security.

In the early 1890s, Ishitaro Miyano traveled from Hiroshima to Hawaii at 13 in search of a better life. He eventually set his roots down in Sonoma County where he became a successful chicken farmer. It didn't take long after Pearl Harbor for the FBI to show up at the Miyano home to arrest Ishitaro, said Cynthia Hayashi about her grandfather.

Ishitaro was incarcerated in New Mexico. It would be months before his family found out where he was.
The Sonoma County JA community is close-knit because of the turbulent history it shared.

Growing up there, Carol Kawase always knew the importance of a strong immigrant community. During WWII, her father Harry Kawase was interned at Amache and her mother Betty was taken to Tule Lake.
Harry remembers the positive things of people standing up and supporting JAs during their time of need, said Carol. "Now it's JACL's opportunity to be supportive of immigrant rights."

But like in any other community there is a diversity of opinion.

"Some people did not understand the point of our resolution," said Carol. Some Sonoma County chapter members thought the "County of Refuge" resolution supported unauthorized immigration.

"It has a lot to do with the different generations and different life experiences," said Cynthia, who added that although not all chapter members agree on all issues, they are open to the discussion. "It's important to have these discussions that determine the direction of the JACL. Is it a civil rights organization? A cultural organization? What is the main focus?"

"This issue hits close to home for us, given our own immigrant history in America," said Patty Wada, NCWNP regional director. "We recognize the parallels in what is taking place today with how the Issei were treated - the scapegoating and misinformation are creating that same climate of fear and bigotry that our grandparents lived under. We have to ensure that fear doesn't lead to the same anti-immigrant legislation and policies that targeted Asians."

Related Stories

The Postville 28 -- Women Immigrants Fight To Stay In U.S.

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