Hawaii Attorney General Douglas Chin says the decision to challenge President Donald Trump’s travel ban has its roots in World War II.
While the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor painfully underscored the need to focus on national security, the decision to isolate Americans based on their ancestry still stands as a national embarrassment.
“One of the things that people remember from that time is the internment of Japanese Americans, German Americans and Italian Americans based upon national security issues,” Chin said in a TV interview with VOA’s Deewa Service.
“When [Trump’s] order came out, it was actually the 75th anniversary of when president [Franklin D.] Roosevelt had issued his own executive order. It’s not like every decision that was made then was a great one.”
In addition, about 20 percent of Hawaii’s population is foreign-born, many of its students come from overseas, and tourism is the state’s No. 1 economic driver.
“The fact that when the executive order came out it had some discrimination against people based on their national origin, that immediately struck a chord with people in the state,” said Chin, the son of Chinese immigrants.
“This kind of order goes against people’s civil rights. That’s a bad trend that we don’t want to see lead to worse things in the future. I think that history teaches us that if you don’t speak out the first time when you see injustice happening, the next time it becomes harder to speak up again. It becomes easier to rationalize or compromise or justify a decision the government is making.”
Trump’s second order barred the issuance of new visas for 90 days to people from six countries: Somalia, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya and Yemen. Iraq, which had been on the list in the first travel order, was omitted because it agreed to stricter vetting. Like the first travel order, the second one barred refugee admissions for 120 days, but it did not ban Syrian refugees indefinitely, as the first one did.
While highly unpopular overseas, the 90-day entry ban on citizens of the six countries is supported by roughly one-half of all Americans, according to polls, and is consistent with repeated promises made by the president during his election campaign. Homeland Security chief John Kelly maintained when the first order was issued in January that the ban is not aimed specifically at Muslims, saying that his agency’s mission “is to safeguard the American people, our homeland, our values."
Chin has a reply. “We understand that national security is absolutely critical. The current president just needs to do what the presidents before him did, just follow the Constitution."
Chin pointed out that the decision to set up internment camps wasn’t a sudden one.
“It started with little things that people would say, statements from the highest levels of government, things like, `You can’t really trust the Japanese people because they come from a different culture than the American culture,’" said Chin.
“I think when we hear … the highest levels of government making statements that are disenfranchising an entire class of people or minimizing them or somehow making them second rate from another class, that’s just not what the United States is all about. I think that’s why what we’re doing is so important,” he said.
After Trump’s original ban was overturned by a judge in Washington state, the White House issued a new version aimed at clearing the legal system. Chin said there was a legal precedent that took down the revision.
“The Supreme Court, several years ago when it was looking at religious discrimination, decided the following: Basically, the courts are allowed to look behind the words that are on a document, even if they are neutral, to find if there is any discriminatory intent,” said Chin.
He pointed to a March 15 rally in Nashville in which Trump said on national television that the revision was basically a watered-down version of the original, and that if he had his way, he would go back to original.
“You couldn’t ask for something more explicit,” Chin said.
VOA’s Deewa Service contributed to this report.