By JONATHAN VAN HARMELEN
Imagery is a powerful tool in storytelling. While prose can guide readers towards a message, images, specifically photographs, carry the special ability to project a message instantly and construct their own reality for the viewer.
This week, like many people, I was appalled to see the images of Border Patrol agents on horseback violently attacking Haitian asylum seekers. This photo, taken by Associated Press photographer Felix Marquez, has now rekindled age-long debates on inhumane immigration policies.
Although the agents may have imagined themselves as enforcing the law, the reality is their actions underline the disturbingly racist side of border control and the ongoing discrimination against migrants of color – in particular black migrants.
Yet, even as these new images remained fresh in my mind, I could also not shake the feeling that I had somehow seen them before. The brutal looks on the faces of the border patrolmen attacking asylum seekers along the riverbank reminded me of a similar photograph.
What suddenly occurred to me was the resemblance to a photograph taken during World War II of government police dragging men from the Tule Lake stockade. The stockade was built during the period of martial law at the “segregation center,” when Army colonel Verne Austin assured prisoners there that the camp would be ruled with an iron fist.
The photograph in question depicts a long group of men being led out of the Tule Lake stockade by uniformed Border Patrol officers. Among the officers are two men, one smiling jeeringly, as they drag the body of a prisoner to the camp perimeter. Whether the officers were instructed to be brutal to make an impression on their captives, or whether they chose to carry out their orders sadistically, the message they conveyed was clear.
Although the photographer, an inmate at Tule Lake, who daringly captured the pictures of guards viciously dragging men from the stockade is unknown, civil rights attorney Wayne Collins successfully saved the negatives and smuggled them out of camp. Since the 1970s, the photographs have been featured prominently in historical works such as Michi Weglyn’s “Years of Infamy” (a work dedicated to Collins and the first known publication to include them) and Richard Drinnon’s “Keeper of Concentration Camps,” as well as photography studies like Jasmine Alinder’s “Moving Images.”
Today, the story of Tule Lake is a haunting reminder of not only the tragic results of the loyalty oath, but also the place of Japanese American incarceration within the longer history of immigration control and exclusion. The draconian tactics used by the U.S. Army and the lesser-known efforts by immigration officials to encourage prisoners at Tule Lake to renounce their American citizenship contributed strongly to the hellish landscape for those confined there.
Today, as activist groups like Tsuru for Solidarity and Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress continue to protest the detention of refugees and asylum seekers, the photos taken at the U.S.-Mexico border of Haitian refugees further prove that the inhumane conditions created by immigration control need to be confronted anew. Whether in 1945 or 2021, these images remind us that the immigration system is not “broken,” but is working as intended by its creators to exclude immigrants of color and black immigrants.
We all owe a great deal to Felix Marquez, along with many other daring photojournalists, for bringing us these important images and reminding us of the need for a new immigration system, one that ensures equality of treatment for those seeking asylum, whatever the color of their skin. We can only hope that such images, as powerful as they are, inspire the change that is needed to push the American system to practice what it preaches.
Jonathan van Harmelen is a Ph.D. student in history at UC Santa Cruz. A specialist in the history of Japanese Americans, including their relation¬ship with the Catholic Church, he is a regular columnist for Discover Nikkei. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.