Human rights and principled Americans

 

Every now and then, I serve as chauffer for my good friend and former wife, Junko. She hates to drive but, from time to time, needs to take a road trip for one reason or another, and since I enjoy road trips and live nearby, I do the driving.

Last week she needed to go to the Japanese Consulate in Denver to renew her passport, so I drove her up from New Mexico. It took her only a few minutes to take care of business, leaving us with a day to kill in the heart of the city.

Every time Junko goes into a big city, she wants to visit an international food store, mostly in search of foods she grew up with but can’t find in America’s smaller towns and cities. Over the years, we’ve been to several such markets in about a half-dozen states—but the market we visited in downtown Denver, the Pacific Mercantile Company, really stood out for a couple of reasons.

One reason is that Junko loved this particular market, which means she took a lot of time on her usual Asian foods shopping spree. Such a market doesn’t hold my attention nearly as long as it does for her, so to pass the time I went for a walk, and found a second reason to love this place: Just around the corner, a piece of history is on display, which I think is apropos to America’s here-and-now.

In a beautiful little courtyard at Sakura Square, there is the bust of a conservative Republican, Ralph L. Carr, who served as governor of Colorado from 1939 to 1943. The inscription spoke of Carr’s courage in the face of the prevailing sentiments during World War II, when he stood up against the forced removal and internment of Japanese Americans under the guise of national security. “They are loyal Americans,” he is quoted saying, “sharing only race with the enemy.”

As governor, Carr welcomed Japanese Americans to Colorado. Particularly noted at this monument were the hostilities Japanese Americans felt in Oregon, in the form of “evacuations” from their homes. Many of them escaped to Denver because of Carr’s willingness to accept them as free Americans.

“Those who benefited from Governor Carr’s humanity have built this monument in grateful memory of his unflinching Americanism and as a lasting reminder that the precious democratic ideals he espoused must forever be defended against prejudice and neglect,” the inscription reads.

The result of Carr’s courageous stand is widely believed to have contributed to his political downfall; he was defeated in a re-election bid in 1942. History, on the other hand, has honored him in many ways. The Denver Post named him Colorado’s “Person of the Century” in 1999.

A few feet away from the monument to Carr, another bust, of Minoru Yasui, stands. He was a Japanese American who was born in Oregon and moved to Denver, a man who went to jail as part of his fight against the discrimination of his time. He went on to become a great contributor to Denver’s cultural identity and heritage.

Now, I ask: Who among us today will be honored after historians write about what is now being done along our national borders? Will the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies stand up to the historic values of our nation, or will they go down in history as the Japanese internment camps have—a dark chapter in our collective national identity?

Of course, there’s a difference between stripping citizens of their rights and detaining those who aren’t U.S. citizens, but not much. They both violate people’s God-given rights. No child should be ripped away from his or her mother simply because they aren’t wanted by the nation they’ve dared to enter. That’s not what America stands for.

Carr and Yasui deserve an honored place in history because they took an unpopular stand and bravely declared, as history has recorded Carr saying, “If you harm them, you must first harm me.” They stood up for America’s highest ideals.

If the United States is to remain faithful to its original declaration that all people have inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” we must recognize that human rights are at least as important as citizen rights. And that, fellow Americans, needs to start at our borders.

Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. He also owns and operates The Communicator, a weekly newspaper in Santa Rosa. He can be reached at tmcdonald.srnm@gmail.com.