Lone senator blocks Japanese internment camp designation, sparks anger

DENVER (AP) — On the eve of the 80th anniversary of the forced internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans at the start of World War II, Republican U.S. Senator Mike Lee of Utah is being criticized for delaying the establishment of a National Historic Site at a former internment camp in rural Colorado.

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, said he had the support of 99 of the 100 senators in the chamber to pass the Amache National Historic Site Act, which would make this remote Southeast landmark of Colorado a National Historic Site eligible for additional preservation assistance.

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But his bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper, failed to pass by unanimous consent last week due to a single objection from Lee, who opposes adding new federal lands. without adequate funding and has in the past advocated for “swaps”. to prevent the expansion of federal land ownership.

“Senator Lee does not oppose this specific historic site. He opposes any increase in the total area of ​​land held by the federal government, because the federal government does not take sufficient care of the land already in its vast holdings. Lee’s spokesperson, Lee Lonsberry, told The Associated Press.

A similar House bill, sponsored by Colorado Republican Rep. Ken Buck and Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse, passed quickly last year, and Bennet’s Senate companion can still advance for consideration.

The dispute comes amid a broader consideration of race in US history as Japanese Americans work to raise awareness of the gross injustices committed by the US government against their community. during WWII.

The Amache site is less than a square mile (2.4 square kilometers), said Bennett’s office and the Prowers County assessor. It contains remains of barracks, latrines, mess halls, military police structures and a cemetery.

Lee has been one of the Republican Party’s most vocal opponents of the expansive power available to federal agencies to manage public lands in western states.

He supported the Trump administration’s 2017 decision to downsize Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, two national monuments in Utah. And last year he opposed the Biden administration’s decision to restore Bears Ears’ original borders. In a 2018 speech in Utah, where about two-thirds of land is managed by federal agencies, he stated his long-term goal of transferring federal lands to state control.

Camp Amache is owned by the city of Granada and is already on the National Register of Historic Places. Its current designation qualifies it for preservation funds, but designating it as a National Historic Site would make additional federal funds available through the National Park Service.

Calling the internment of Japanese Americans one of the “most shameful chapters in our nation’s history” fueled by “racist fear,” Bennet said in a speech on the ground Feb. 3, the draft law intended to honor people “who have never abandoned the United States of America”. even as he would intern them on their own soil.

Japanese Americans were held in 10 camps in California, Arizona, Wyoming, Utah, Arkansas and Colorado, expelled from their homes near the West Coast under an executive order by President Franklin Roosevelt issued February 19, 1942. More than 7,000 people were interned. at Amache – the unofficial name of the camp, after the daughter of a Cheyenne chief – between 1942 and 1945.

According to the National Park Service, a cemetery, reservoir, well and water reservoir and trees planted by internees remain at the site, which is managed by a nonprofit organization, the Amache Preservation Society.

Lee’s position has drawn outrage from many organizations, including the Japanese American Citizens League and the National Parks Conservation Association, which defends the national park system. The Citizens’ League, its local southern Colorado affiliate and other groups are planning a day of remembrance on Feb. 19 that will in part require passage of Bennett’s bill.

The initiative “not only serves as a tool for healing and acknowledging the wrongdoings of our government, but it empowers individuals and outside the country to move forward to a better way of being,” said Shirley Ann Higuchi, president of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation whose parents were interned at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in that state.

She noted that her own father, William Higuchi, became chairman of the Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry at the University of Utah; another inmate, Raymond Uno, became Utah’s first ethnic minority judge.

“A lot of Japanese Americans have contributed so much to Utah, and it’s too bad they can’t be honored in a low-key way,” Higuchi said. “They have quietly contributed to our country and it is unfortunate that they cannot be supported by someone from their own state.”

Bennet’s and Lee’s offices said the senators explained how to add the remnants of the Amache-Granada War Relocation Center to the parks system.

Metz reported from Salt Lake City.

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