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How do modern policies mirror the past incarceration of Japanese Americans?

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
The Manzanar "Relocation Center" camp, captured June 30, 1942

On this edition of Your Call, hear the first conversation from an ongoing series of events exploring the connections between Japanese-American incarceration and modern civil liberties issues.

We talk with activist Grace Shimizu, asylum seeker and immigration advocate Veronica Aguilar, and Norm Ishimoto, whose parents were incarcerated. Reporter Laura Morel discusses her reporting on immigrant children who've been forcibly separated from their parents.


Laura Morel, immigration reporting fellow at Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting

Norm Ishimoto, San Francisco resident, son of parents who were held in Japanese internment camps around the country during World War II

Grace Shimizu, director of the Japanese-Peruvian Oral History Project and coordinator of the Campaign for Justice: Redress Now for Japanese Latin Americans

Veronica Aguilar, asylum seeker and immigrant rights advocate

Web Resources:

Then They Came for Me

WBUR/KQED: Patience And Powerlessness As Mother Awaits Son Seeking Asylum In U.S.

Reveal: Salvadoran man has evidence he’s not a gang member. US still separated him from his kids

APM Reports: Order 9066

PRI: The US imprisoned Japanese Peruvians in Texas, then said they entered ‘illegally’


Rose Aguilar: Welcome. I’m Rose Aguilar. And this is a special live taping of Your Call from Futures Without Violence in San Francisco’s Presidio.


Tonight we are going to take a deep look at the parallels between the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the incarceration of immigrants in the United States today. In the 1940s, more than 100,000 U.S. residents of Japanese descent were forcibly relocated to camps around the country. Today, thousands of children are being held in camps and families are imprisoned around the country after arriving in the United States seeking asylum for a life free of violence or poverty from Central America.


So tonight we’re going to talk about details that have been whitewashed from our memory and our history about the incarceration of Japanese-Americans. We’ll also talk about what it will take for the United States to stop repeating past abuses. Later in the show Veronica Aguilar will share her story. She’s an asylum seeker from El Salvador who was detained for seven months in Southern California and now lives with a sponsor in the Bay Area.


Joining us now is Norm Ishimoto who’s a third-generation Japanese-American. As a child, when Norm was in the Cub Scouts he often heard his parents Paul and Mae talk with their friends about the different camps they were in. When he said, what are you talking about? His mom would get upset and say, do not ask that question again. Norm was able to get some information from his parents as they got older and he learned even more after they passed away. Norm, thank you for joining us. 

Norm Ishimoto: Thank you very much Rose.

RA: We’re also joined by Grace Shimizu, Director of the Japanese-Peruvian Oral History Project and coordinator of the Campaign for Justice: Redress Now for Japanese Latin Americans. Grace is the daughter of a Japanese national who was taken from Peru under a Latin American rendition program during World War II. He was held in the Department of Justice’s Crystal City encampment in Texas as part of a hostage exchange. Grace, thank you so much for joining us. 

Grace Shimizu: Thank you.

RA: And we’re joined by Laura Morel, an immigration reporting fellow at Reveal from the Center of Investigative Reporting. Laura covers immigration issues affecting migrant children and families. In the past few months she’s covered stories about family separation and conditions at shelters for immigrant children. Laura is the daughter of Cuban and Honduran parents and we’ll get an update from Laura about what is currently happening around family separation. It kind of fell off the front page of the papers, so we’ll find out what’s happening. Hi Laura, thank you for joining us. It’s great to have all of you.

Wartime Hysteria and Executive Order 9066

RA: Let’s talk a little bit about just the incarceration of Japanese-Americans. It was a major development in a long history of racist policies in this country. Restrictive policies from the 1800s onward limited immigration from several Asian countries and for years barred people of Asian descent from even seeking citizenship. So that piece is really important. Can you talk a little bit about that Grace?

GS: This country has a long history of racism and white supremacy actually. And there’s been different ways over the many century or something of developing government policies, laws, processes that actually promote a view of racial superiority and hierarchy and division. And so for us of Japanese descent and Asian descent, we experienced a lot of that through those kind of immigration laws. And so today we also see how immigration laws are being used or practices and policies are being used to demonize people, to criminalize people, and to justify the taking of their freedom. That’s why I think it’s important we understand what’s going on but don’t lose sight of the history, the long history that has allowed this.

RA: To add to the history, during World War II, these policies escalated. In early February 1942, the War Department (as it was called then) created 12 restrictive zones along the Pacific Coast and established curfews for Japanese-Americans, enforced under threat of immediate arrest. Later that month came Executive Order 9066 which gave the U.S. Military the authority to quote, exclude any persons from designated areas and then pave the way for forced relocation and incarceration. Can you also talk about that aspect of it?

GS: Presidential executive order was used in that period of time to lead to the actual internment or incarceration of all the people of Japanese ancestry on the west coast. That was mass-incarceration, it was mass-violation of their civil and human rights. One of the worst constitutional violations in our country’s history. But the Executive Order 9066 wasn’t just for Japanese-Americans. The way it’s written it’s for all people that were in specified military zones, so that included persons of Japanese ancestry, but also Germans and Italians. So you had a lot of immigrants who were forced to leave their homes and their families and try to find somewhere else to live nearby. That law was rooted in an earlier law of the Alien Enemies Act of 1918, where the president has the authority in times of war and crisis to identify people as the enemy and then to actually pick up, restrict, detain immigrants who are over 14 years old. So you can just think of your own family members, 14 years old you can start getting picked up and basically disappear. You know, and so then it makes you think about, okay, what are the parallel laws today?

Family Separation, Then and Now

RA: Norm, your father Paul Ishimoto was put into four different camps. He was born in Hawaii territory, raised in Hiroshima and then drafted into the Japanese army and served until he realized he was an American citizen.


NI: I guess at that age you’re not thinking about all the laws and what your birthplace may have meant to you until I guess he realized uh oh, we’re about to be sent to China to invade Manchuria. I’m just kind of guessing on a lot of this but then he has this American citizenship, first born in American territory. So the Japanese government says yeah we can’t get you. So they let him go and he landed in Long Beach. He worked at his aunt and uncle’s Chinese restaurant. They didn’t think it was safe to have a Japanese restaurant. And he caught Tuberculosis. Not from that particularly, but he was dying from TB in the San Gabriel Valley. They actually picked him up with several other dozen person of Japanese ancestry — I think the total was between 150 to 200 — put them into a separate TB sanitorium (there were two actually) where he almost died of the disease. When he got out, his reward for beating Tuberculosis was to be sentenced to Manzanar, the first of the large concentration camps.

RA: Where was Manzanar?


NI: In the Owens Valley, 100 miles up from Los Angeles area. It was a bus ride. For some reason he was extremely patriotic. I can’t rationally figure why he was so patriotic even having asked him, he was that way. He volunteered to go into the Military Intelligence Service. So he was sent to Minnesota where MIS, it basically set up to spy on Japan in the battlefield. They said oh you have Japanese army experience, you grew up in Japan, we’ll use you. So all that he needed to do was pass the physical. So he goes back to Manzanar, they ship him by train, to an induction center in Nevada, where they say, wait a minute you just had Tuberculosis. In the archives I saw his records: They said you could almost see his spine from the front of his chest. He was that emaciated.


So when he gets back to the camp, he’s 4F and all of the No-No boys, the people who were so ticked off at their treatment, that they were like no to being disloyal to the Japanese emperor and no to serving the American army. They said we’re gonna teach this guy a lesson, which was probably fatal if they let him catch him. The camp administrator said, "we got to get you out of here." So he went to one of the camps in Arkansas where his sister was. Which was a turning point in his life, if you can believe that. So he was in two camps in California, and then the two camps were Jerome and Rohwer, in Arkansas, which is where he met my mother in the camp hospital. He became infatuated with her, finally persuaded her to marry him and here I am.

RA: Let’s talk a little bit about your mom, Mae Ishimoto. She was born and raised in the lower Central Valley, the eldest daughter of 11 children in a farm-family and her oldest two brothers enlisted in the army after Pearl Harbor. She was relocated to a camp in Arkansas where her mom passed away and then her father’s health declined very quickly.

NI: After Pearl Harbor, her health nosedived. She kept saying, "Oh, I cannot act to bring dishonor on the family, because everybody’s suspicious of us." And that really put an imprint on my mother – because she kept telling me as a child in Maryland, "You can’t act to bring dishonor upon the family." So I grew up with extreme paranoia as a result of that. Until I could be dispassionate about this, until tonight, then I realized what the administration is doing to the kids along the border – some of my uncles were children that age in Arkansas. But they weren’t split up. Now we’ve got unknown thousands. 

RA: Laura, as you hear Norm telling his story, you’ve done so much reporting on families that have been separated. Can you talk about the similarities?

Laura Morel: Sure, yeah. So in the last year Reveal has been reporting extensively on family separation and how families at the border are being affected by the Trump Administration. And what we know now is that more than 2,700 children were separated from their families during about a 4-month period last year between April and the end of June. For the most part, these families, a lot of them were reunited within a few weeks, for others it took much longer — it took months. I still know of families today that are still separated seven months later. We’re talking about kids from babies to teenagers. We actually just found out a couple of weeks ago, a government report came out, reporting that we actually don’t know the total number of separated families because this policy was apparently already in place way before the Trump administration announced it. So right now we just don’t know. The only thing that the government report says is there might be thousands more that were separated that we did not know about.

RA: What is happening to families today? 

LM: So what’s happening today is the Zero Tolerance Policy that we saw last summer, but more narrowed down. That’s because the government is accusing certain parents of having a criminal record or of having some type of gang affiliation but they’re not providing any sort of evidence or proof. So the story I wrote about earlier this week was actually about a Salvadoran father who crossed the border in November with his two children and when they were placed in detention here the border officers started accusing him of being a MS-13 gang member. But they didn’t offer any proof. He was so desperate that he took off his shirt to show them he didn’t have any tattoos on his body. He luckily was able to get lawyers and the lawyers have put together all of this evidence, like a record from El Salvador saying he has a clean record. They have a letter from his employer where he worked for 13 years that says he was a great employee. And they submitted a beach photo of him at the beach with his kids to show that he doesn’t have any tattoos. And still three months have passed and this father is still separated from his 11-year-old daughter and his 9-year-old son.

RA: Later in the show we’re going to hear from Veronica Aguilar and she’s going to tell us why she left El Salvador. Why did this man leave to come to the U.S.?

LM: He came, it’s a very similar story to what we’ve heard from other families, he was having issues with local gangs that were threatening him and were asking him to pay $1,300. El Salvador uses American currency so it was actually in dollar amount, and he couldn’t afford it. He also ended up moving to another city in El Salvador to try to escape the threats but the gangs followed him and kept threatening him and the safety of his children. He felt that he had no choice but to come here because he knew that the gangs couldn’t get across the border. 

RA: That is Laura Morel, she is an immigration reporting fellow from Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. She covers immigration issues affecting migrant children and families. We’re also joined by Norm Ishimoto, a third-generation Japanese-American. And Grace Shimizuv, Director of the Japanese-Peruvian Oral History Project and coordinator of the Campaign for Justice: Redress Now for Japanese Latin Americans.

And this is a special live taping of Your Call. We are at San Francisco’s Presidio, taking a look at the parallels between the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the incarceration that we’re seeing today.


Grace, can you talk about the parallels that you see between what happened in the ‘40s, the incarceration of Japanese-Americans and what Laura is just describing about what is happening on the border today?

GS: So one thing I’m struck with is during World War II we see the government identifying people as the enemy. Who’s the enemy? What we see is what kind of treatment did they undergo, what was the impact on them as individuals, families, communities? And then really looking more closely at what were the government policies and programs. Now, with hindsight looking back, they’re considered one of the worst constitutional violations. What we’re seeing with the enemy the treatment was who’s a potential enemy? It’s not necessarily that people were charged with crimes, had trials, and then were locked away. [They] had their freedom taken away, but more at least in the case of the Japanese-American experience, a commission said that it’s war-time hysteria, racial prejudice, and failure of political leadership. But we know the war-time hysteria was in large part manufactured. It was a conscious effort to create an enemy, create fear, especially in a time of crisis.


In terms of racial prejudice, we know it wasn’t just a prejudice that happened. This is long history of prejudice. It propped up a system from the beginning of the country of white supremacy. Here we are in World War II fighting against fascism and this idea Nazi white superiority and then having to deal with those kind of conditions at home.


And then now, it’s like we’re hearing those same kind of words, those same kind of examples of ‘there’s invaders coming, they’re all criminals, they’re degenerates, etc.’ and that the way to deal with it is like something we should do with Japanese internment. What we see is an attack happening on the immigrants in WWII and quickly spreading to U.S. citizens. Today we also see the attack on immigrants and the strong racist edge to it. And then the danger we should at least be able to recognize is what does this mean for all of the United States? Immigrants and other residents as well. What connection does that have to U.S. foreign policy?

RA: And that’s such an important point because if we do not learn about Japanese internment, let alone U.S. foreign policy, let’s just say Central America – if we don’t have the context for why people are leaving beyond what you hear in the media – you do hear violence and poverty, and it ends there. But you don’t really go much further than that. Why is there so much violence? Why is there so much poverty? Laura, I mean, how do you add that context to your reporting so people can understand why this is happening? We’ll hear from Veronica. She said she didn’t want to leave her home like so many people. They would rather be home with their families but they felt like they had no choice but to leave.

LM: Right, this is an impossible choice for families. These are families like the Salvadoran family I talked about earlier, you know, they're harassed by gangs. And the problem is that in a lot of cases the local law enforcement agencies are paid off by the gangs and so they can't really rely on the local police to help them. And the other problem is that a lot of times the gangs know like what relatives or which loved ones people really care about. So if somebody has a small child, they will threaten you and threaten violence toward the small child. And so what choice does a parent have? Do you stay and do you, you know, try to ignore the threats and hope that everything's going to be okay? Or do you try to leave even if that means facing possible detention in another country?

So I think it just comes down to, you know, when we interview immigrants, we ask them that all the time, why are you leaving your country? Because we know that when they're doing that it's because they feel like they need to and they're leaving behind a home that they know, in a place where they know the language, to come to a completely strange land, and there's a reason why that that’s happening and there's a reason why there’s drivers behind that.

RA: Laura Morel is an immigration reporting fellow at Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. We are here at the Futures Without Violence in the San Francisco's Presidio. Be sure to come down and see an incredible exhibit “Then They Came For Me” and we've got information about this at yourcallradio.org.


Grace, what else would you add? We're going to hear your personal story in a minute, but just about the historical context. Can you talk more about the importance of that and what can we do to bring that into the conversation? 


GS: We have laws still on the books that allow what happened in World War II internment to happen again. We still have laws and new laws that are – exist already so that people can just citizens or residents just be picked off up the street in the United States or anywhere else in the world and put in a black hole somewhere and used for whatever purpose. It's no longer enough that we go on a demonstration with a sign that says, ‘I feel your pain.’ We really have to stop these violations that are happening.


Those kids that are in those detention camps, they cannot remain there. Those families that are separated that don't know where their kids are at, you know that can no longer continue, and we need to figure out how to make that goal, that end thing a reality because what's happening in this country is our responsibility. You know and then that means we have to be prepared to hold the U.S. government accountable, you know, and in the Japanese-American experience, the lessons we can garner from there is, yeah you go for redress, you know, you ask for what happened not be repeated. And you make it so that the policy has an ouch factor to it. We don't want these kind of violations to happen again, as of the cost of doing business. We have to have those political leaders that are wanting to do those things to have to think twice, three times of whether they can carry it out and we have to really hold them accountable. 

RA: This is Your Call, and we'll be back after this. Welcome back. I'm Rose Aguilar. And this is a special live taping of Your Call from Futures Without Violence in San Francisco's Presidio. 



The U.S. Imprisoned Japanese Peruvians and Other So-Called Enemies


RA: Grace, I want to make sure we spend a little bit of time talking about your personal story. Again, you're the director of the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project. You're the daughter of a Japanese national who was taken from Peru under a Latin American rendition program during World War II. I'm guessing that for a lot of people, this is new information for them. Can you tell us more about that program?


GS: Yeah, so most people know how at least in this area, know about the Japanese-American incarceration of about 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, both U.S. citizens and residents, you know who were put in those 10 war relocation authority camps. Well, most don’t know that the incarceration of Japanese-American community was part of a larger U.S. program of how to deal with the enemy. So they don't know that over 31,000 women, men and children of Japanese, German and Italian ancestry were detained and interned in a whole other set of camps, over 50 facilities and camps spread around the country. And further, they don't know that 6,000 persons including Jewish people, 81 Jewish people, were kidnapped from Latin America and brought here and interned in the Department of Justice camps for the purpose of hostage exchange.


My dad was one of the people that was taken from Peru with other members of my family. So when he was taken, very similar to the Japanese-American experience, where people were identified as potentially dangerous. There was a blacklist that was printed in the newspaper, you know that listed all the individual or businesses that were of these so-called, potentially dangerous enemies. The targets were basically leaders of the community, especially in Peru as businessman, like my dad. Like in the United States, never charged with a crime, didn't have a trial like that, and no search warrants were issued. My dad was then on that blacklist. So at one point the U.S. transport comes sailing into the harbor and they have a list of people that they're supposed to take away, they go and find them, and my dad went to Panama to the U.S. military camp and was put to hard labor there in violation of the Geneva Convention, and then eventually members of our family were brought to the United States processed in, you know, sent to Crystal City, which is a family detention center, which by the way, is an hour's away, an hour away from the current Dilley Family Detention Center in Texas. So that's interesting that so close, you know, there are these past and current detention sites.



RA: And you're really documenting and preserving this history. So it doesn't get erased and part of your work is to seek government accountability for human rights violations?


GS: Yeah. So for the most part our families were not included in the Redress that was extended to or granted to the Japanese-Americans because we were labeled illegal aliens. So they say you entered the country illegally. Well, the point was they took our visas and our passports on the way, you know, and so this whole classification is a farce, to a be able to grab hold of people and use them the way they want, which was in the hostage exchange.


I advocate with other family members, you know for the preservation of our history and but also for this government accountability. Because we don't want what happened to our families to happen to other families. And so we did what: five lawsuits, two pieces of failed legislation. We got a petition filed at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. It's been 16 years waiting for a ruling. Just yesterday, we were informed that the commission submitted a report with recommendations to the U.S. government, in terms of whether they are going to uphold our claim that of the U.S. government ongoing failure to provide Redress for war crimes and crimes against humanity. That's the level of the violations, you know, so we should be hearing hopefully all of you will be hearing news about that and you'll say, oh I know about it!


Looking Forward


RA: Can I get a final thoughts from all of you. Laura, obviously, we don't know where this is going. But what do you think needs to be on our radar right now? When we think about what is happening to families today family. People are still coming — they know what they're about to face and they're still coming, which I think says a lot. Children separation, connecting children with their families. Where do you see? I mean it's hard to tell but where do you think this is going?


LM: Well, I think one of the things that the general public should know about is the Trump Administration keeps trying to push this sort of narrative that there is illegal immigration at the border, but there really sort of isn't. I mean, we know that the number of border crossings happening at the border has actually decreased in the last few years and what is happening is another sort of crisis where we have a lot of families that are coming here to seek refuge and to seek asylum. You know, it just doesn't seem like that's something that the government really wants to acknowledge and what Grace was saying earlier about being called an illegal alien, I mean, we see terms like that still today. I see that all the time. And….


RA: And hear it in the media.


LM: Yes. And like in government documents or you know, in the president's tweets and it's just for me, it's sort of a little bit shocking to hear that, you know that that has a history to it.


RA: Grace, final thoughts from you? What should people take away from this evening, learning about the history and the connections between Japanese internment? And what is happening at the border today and what they can do?


GS: I think one of the things is to realize that what's happening at the border is not new. There are so many threads that reach way back into our country's history. We should really learn about that some more so that we can not only just know about it but really reaffirm our humanity with other people, you know, and our responsibility to really have our government represent what we want, you know, and uphold the Constitution and international law and values that we think are important


RA: Norm, what would you add?


NI: Seeing what my parents have gone through, what they suffered to get the kids a solid footing, and how that turned out over 30-40 years, gives you some degree of hope, but you just can't stop is all I can think to say.


RA: Norm Ishimoto is a third-generation Japanese-American. As a child, he often heard his parents Paul and Mae talk with their friends about the different camps they were in. When he asked, what are you talking about? His mom would say, "don't ask about that." He was able to get some information from his parents as they got older and he learned even more after they passed away. Norm, thank you for sharing your story.


NI: Thank you very much.


RA: Thank you so much. Grace Shimizu is director of the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project and coordinator of the Campaign for Justice: Redress Now for Japanese-Latin Americans. Grace is the daughter of a Japanese national who was taken from Peru under a Latin American rendition program during World War II. Grace, thank you for sharing your story and all the great work you do and thank you for joining us.


Laura Morel is an immigration reporting fellow at Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. She covers immigration issues affecting migrant children and families. Laura, thank you for coming and thank you for all of your great reporting. Thank you so much.


Asylum Seeker from El Salvador's Journey to Refuge and Safety


And now I would like to welcome Veronica Aguilar – no relation to the show. Veronica is an asylum seeker who fled death threats in El Salvador where she worked as a seamstress. After the treacherous journey north, she was jailed for seven months in Orange County while her claim was processed. She was released with an ankle monitor after the group Pueblo Sin Fronteras raised $15,000 for her bond and found her a sponsor in Pinole, California while she fights for asylum in court. Her fifteen-year-old son is currently being held in youth detention in Florida, where he is also seeking asylum. Veronica does not know when or if she will ever see him again. Veronica advocates for immigrants by writing to them in detention so they don't feel alone, and she also organizes fundraisers to raise money for immigrants. Veronica, thank you so much for joining us.


Veronica Aguilar: Hola y buenas noches.


RA: Andrea Valencia has been kind enough to translate for us.


VA: Viaje El Salvador el noviembre de…


Andrea Valencia [translating]: I traveled from El Salvador here in November 2017. I was facing a lot of problems with – the Dad of my son is in a gang. And when I met him, I didn’t really have any idea of how that was going to have such an impact in my life. Sometimes when you’re young you don’t really think things through into the future really. He committed a crime and he was detained. And that’s when my nightmare happened because the gang was forcing me to come in to see him. That happened for many years on and off to a point where two or three years ago, the gang got broken up and that’s when the most difficult thing started happening to me because when the gang started breaking up then when people go out into the street I have to come and talk to my son's dad 'cause if I don't come and talk to him then I would get killed. They started saying that I was having another relationship with another member of the gang of a different gang. That wasn’t true but what they wanted to do was create this situation where my son’s dad would —


VA: Que me mataran.


AV [translating]: End up saying, end up giving permission to the gang to kill me. I received many threats.


VA: Con armas.


AV [translating]: With many different things, weapons being held up to my head. I believe in God and I believe in his power and now I am here. I made a mistake because I just left my country with $100 in my pocket and in that moment, I just wanted to save my life. And I was really afraid. I was really scared that when I would be traveling with my kid, I'll go away and maybe the gangs would take everything away from us if they saw us trying to leave. So I left him behind. I was able to arrive to the Tapachula. I was by myself and I didn’t know what to do or what I was going to do or what was coming next. I arrived to a shelter and people that were there started talking about the Caravan. Everything was about the Caravan and I didn't even know what that was so I started asking who they were and what it was.

VA: Y dicen, no vamos caminando…


AV [translating]: And they said, well you just start walking. They are a group of people who are together and they started walking towards the border. Then I made the decision of joining the Caravan without fully knowing what it was or where they would go through.

VA: La Caravana es un grupo de personas que...


AV [translating]: It’s a group of very bright people.


VA: Que se organiza para cuidarse…


AV [translating]: Who organize themselves to protect themselves and to live together protected in this group, as a group in this journey that is very difficult and dangerous for women. This is how we started walking.


RA: We hear a lot of stories like this from women who are in El Salvador about the violence, the threats from gangs. Was there any help available for you in El Salvador?


AV [translating]: In El Salvador, gangs have a complete control of the communities.What happens is that if you're from this neighborhood, there's another neighborhood here, there’s another one here. And there are three different gangs. They all belong to all these three different games, but men and women are not be moving around from here to there or from this neighborhood to this neighborhood and no one can cross these lines. Only because of the territory that you belong to, you can get killed by them. Families are broken up because of these divisive lines, and if you call the cops, the cops are not going to do anything because a lot of them are part of the gang. And many others are just scared if they're not even part of a gang. And so there's neighborhoods where the police will not come in because they're scared.

RA: Can you talk more about the journey? You have said in interviews before that you did not want to leave your home.


VA: Yo tenia mi casa..


AV [translating]: I had my life, I had my family, my house, my job. I used to exercise. And if my country weren't so ridden with violence and gangs, I would be there. Without, however the poverty that you're living in, the problems that are there just take a hold of you, where you have to make a decision. If you want to live, then you have to make a decision. Either I stay or I get killed or I go to a different country and start over. So, it's a very difficult decision to make, but you make it from one moment to the other. So I would see my family after and my sister was very worried because of everything that happened. The gang members would come to the house and circle the house and she would get so scared, that I made the decision of leaving. And that's when I came to this country.


RA: Can you talk more about what it took to get here? How long it took? The dangers involved. Can you talk about your personal experience?


AV [translating]: I traveled with the Caravan. We were about 350 people in the Caravan that I was with... We didn't really face too much danger in the journey that we went through because we were taking care of each other. The men were protecting the group. But what was the most difficult to me and what really left a mark in my life forever, I think is all the time I spent in the detention facility.


VA: Siete meses...


AV [translating]: Those were very harsh seven months where you are by yourself. You're alone in this place. I didn't have any family here. I didn't speak with anyone. I couldn't buy anything. I couldn't talk to my family in El Salvador.


VA: Tiena amigas Chinese.


AV [translating]: I have some Chinese friends and they would give me one minute. They would tell me, one minute. When they see me all sad…my family, my family. They would tell me it’s your family that you miss and I would just start crying and they would take out their card and say you can have one minute of my card to call thme. All I could say to my family was, "Hi Mom, I really love you. I am okay, please don't worry for me. Take care of my children and tell them that I love them. When I can, I will call you again. I love you." In this place, there’s a lot of discrimination towards all of us, because we cannot speak English, because we are immigrants. We don't get good medical attention if we get sick, it's like you're worth nothing to them. For them, we are nothing. It's like they see us as if we are trash. A lot of girls would arrive to this detention facility from other countries from Africa, from Haiti, Mexicans. And it's really harsh to be in this place and to get to know the story of each and every one in there.


RA: Can you talk about how you finally got out?


AV [translating]: I lost my asylum case while I was detained. I went out under the Rodriguez Bond. In Los Angeles, they still have that in place. They set up a $15,000 bond for me to get out. That day was horrible to me. It was horrible because I was so scared when they gave me that bond.  The first thing that I could do was to call someone but I thought that maybe they were going to deport me and send me back to my country. And I was saying, "where am I going to get this crazy amount of money if I don't even have anyone here or there who would have this money?" And I called him, who is one of the members from Pueblo Sin Fronteras and he’s one of the ones who was always watching out for all of us who were in detention, and he said don't worry, we are not going to leave you there. And that was so true. Pueblo Sin Fronteras is an organization who are people who are united to this struggle, they raised all $15,000 for my bond.


RA: And you also got connected with a sponsor family in the East Bay.


VA: Si.


AV [translating]: Yes. They put me in touch with my hosts, my sponsors. They are my family. They are always taking care of me. They help me, they support me. When I go out…when I left, I started being more in touch with my family, and I started noticing that gangs were starting to bother my son so that he would join. They started pressuring my son to join the gang. So I started thinking about how to bring him with me here. So when I realized there was a Caravan leaving Honduras, I talked to my mom and I told her I needed her to help me. And my mom joined the Caravan, the Honduran Caravan in Mexico, with my son. My son is in this Caravan with my mom and that was very difficult. But thanks to God, they actually arrived to Tijuana and once they were there, they took them to a shelter.


They took my son to a shelter for unaccompanied minors. The first time the was detained in Mexico. It was very difficult, and I spent about three or four days that I didn't hear anything about him, because he was detained. I didn't know where he was. He was scared. Mexican police is bad. And in the end, I was able to reach him. Right now, he's still under detention. The second he went in there, I had all the paperwork ready. The lawyer helped me set it up. But things here are not really fast, there's a lot of things that happen and that they request [my] papers and they told me in December that if I wanted to go and get my fingerprints taken so that my son could leave faster, I could go over there and do it. And I thought yes, I'm going to go over there to San Fernando and get my fingerprints taken so that my son gets taken out of the detention facility quicker. So I was thinking about going to San Fernando but then in the end, and up until today, they haven't even returned my son to me.


RA: How did your son end up in Florida, where he's seeking asylum?


AV [translating]: He entered through the Tijuana border and they took him from there. They just take them all the way there.


RA: How often do you talk to your son? And when you when you ask the authorities, when will I be reconnected to my son or what's happening to my son? What do they tell you?


AV [translating]: I talk to my son twice a week. When I talk to the social worker, she just says we have to wait, we have to wait. And I say, "well if it were your son maybe you would say something else." But, I talk to him and he tells me that he doesn't really want to eat. She says, "no your son is okay, he's fine. He has a doctor, he goes to school." And I tell them, "please don't lie to me because he is incarcerated. You kind of disguise this by calling it a shelter, but he's actually incarcerated."


RA: Can you give us a brief update on your specific case? What's next for you?


AV [translating]: Well, wait.


VA: Espirar.


AV [translating]: I’m going through an appealing. I'm going through the first phase. I don't really know what that's called. I don't know if I will be denied and then I can go to the Ninth Circuit. I think that I leave this up to God's will. While I'm here, I'm going to work and I'm going to take care of my rights and from all of my brothers and sisters who are migrants. And if one day I have to leave I’m going to go to Mexico with an organization that works to protect and defend immigrants’ rights.


RA: Veronica, thank you so much for sharing your story and thank you for coming tonight.


AV [translating]: Thank you. It's my pleasure to be here with you.


RA: Veronica Aguilar is an asylum seeker who fled death threats in El Salvador where she worked as a seamstress. After the treacherous journey north she was jailed for seven months in Orange County while her claim was processed. She found a sponsor in Pinole while she is currently fighting her asylum in court. Thank you so much.


And I want to thank all of our guests tonight. I also want to thank interpreters Andrea Valencia and JoAnn DeLuna. Thank you so much, and thank you to everyone who helped bring the show together Laura Wenus, Phil Surkis, Taylor Simmons, Mia Summers and Laura Flynn. And thank you all so much for coming tonight. Thank you for joining us. I'm Rose Aguilar. It's Your Call.



Rose Aguilar, host

Laura Wenus, producer

Laura Flynn, project producer and editor

Phil Surkis, assistant producer

Taylor Simmons, social media manager

Andrea Valencia and JoAnn DeLuna, interpreters



HEAR is made possible by funding from the California State Library's California Civil Liberties Public Education Program.



Rose Aguilar has been the host of Your Call since 2006. She became a regular media roundtable guest in 2001. In 2019, the San Francisco Press Club named Your Call the best public affairs program. In 2017, The Nation named it the most valuable local radio show.