Utah Sen. Mike Lee drops opposition after drawing outrage, internment camp bill advances

Feb 15, 2022, 12:34 PM | Updated: Jun 13, 2022, 3:40 pm
Topaz, the Japanese internment camp which held over 8,000 internees for a 3 1/2 years, shown here i...
Topaz, the Japanese internment camp which held over 8,000 internees for a 3 1/2 years, shown here in 1943. (Utah State Historical Society)
(Utah State Historical Society)

DENVER (AP) — A proposal to create a national historic site at a former World War II Japanese American internment camp in rural Colorado has passed the U.S. Senate after Republican Utah Sen. Mike Lee dropped his objections to adding more land to the federal government’s portfolio — in this case less than a square mile.

The bipartisan bill to make Camp Amache part of the National Park System, sponsored by members of Colorado’s congressional delegation, goes to the House for final consideration. Its Senate passage Monday evening comes just before Saturday’s 80th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s order that led to the forced internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans at the onset of the war.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, said he had the support of 99 of the chamber’s 100 senators to pass the Amache National Historic Site Act, which would make the remote southeastern Colorado landmark a national historic site eligible for additional preservation assistance.

The word "Topaz" spelled into the fence in barbed wire can be seen at the memorial site just outside of the World War II Japanese-American Topaz Internment Camp near Delta, Utah. (Kaitlyn Bancroft) FILE -A rebuilt recreation hall from the Topaz Japanese-American internment camp is on display at the Topaz Museum, June 9, 2015, in Delta. (Deseret News) A rebuilt dorm room from the Topaz Japanese-American internment camp on display at the Topaz Museum, June 9, 2015, in Delta. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) An art show of works from the Topaz Japanese-American internment camp is on display at the Topaz Museum, June 9, 2015, in Delta, Utah. (Deseret News) In April 1943, thousands of Topaz prisoners turned out for the funeral of the 63-year-old James Wakasa. Wakasa had been shot by the military police for walking with his dog too close to the camp's barbed wire perimeter.
(Utah State Historical Society) Topaz, the Japanese internment camp which held over 8,000 internees for a 3 1/2 years, shown here in 1943. (Utah State Historical Society)

Under the original bill, the land, owned by the town of Granada in Colorado’s eastern plains, would be purchased or donated to the federal government, although Bennet’s office says preparations have been made for the town to donate the site.

But the bill failed to pass the Senate by unanimous consent earlier this month due to a lone objection from Lee, who opposes adding new federal lands without adequate funding and in the past has advocated for “swaps” to prevent expanding federal land ownership.

The dispute came amid a broader reckoning about race in U.S. history as Japanese Americans strive to spread awareness about the gross injustices committed by the U.S. government against their community during World War II.

Bennet and Lee sparred on the Senate floor Monday before Lee agreed to drop his insistence on a land swap and Bennet clarified that Granada will donate the Amache site. Lee did call the internment of Japanese Americans “racist” and “shameful” but still insisted the U.S. government has an obligation to dispose of federal lands in the West.

“The federal government still owns two-thirds of all the land in my state,” declared Lee, one of the Republican Party’s most vocal opponents of the expansive power that federal agencies have to manage public lands in Western states.

“We have to get this done,” Bennet said, “because the survivors of Amache are growing fewer and fewer in number each year.”

The Amache site contains remnants of barracks, latrines, mess halls, military police structures and a cemetery. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, qualifying it for preservation funds. Designating it a National Historic Site would make available additional federal funds through the National Park Service.

Japanese Americans were held in camps across the U.S. West, as well on a smaller scale elsewhere in the U.S., under an executive order issued by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942. More than 7,000 people were interned at Amache between 1942 and 1945.

Lee’s stance drew outrage from numerous organizations, including the Japanese American Citizens League and the National Parks Conservation Association, which advocates for the National Park System.

“I have waited many, many years to see the day where we can be certain that Amache, as a place of reflection, remembrance, honor, and healing, is protected for our current and future generations,” Bob Fuchigami, an Amache survivor, said in a statement released by the conservation association. Fuchigami, who testified for the bill, was 11 years old when his family was expelled from their farm in Yuba City, California, to Amache in May 1942.

Lee’s office released the following Tuesday afternoon:

WASHINGTON – Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) reached agreement on establishing the Amache Internment Camp site in Granada, Colorado as a national historic site. While both Senators had sought to commemorate the horrors of Japanese internment, they had different approaches. After debate on the Senate floor, the members agreed to a compromise solution.

Sen. Lee said in the Senate debate, “No person should ever be in prison solely due to their race, that shouldn’t even be a factor in anyone’s imprisonment. Certainly not in the United States of America. Japanese internment is one of the very worst examples of our government rejecting its founding principles. It’s something that should be remembered so that it can never be repeated. …”

“Regrettably, the United States has failed to meet other, admittedly far less fundamental obligations it has made to individuals and states. One of those obligations is relevant here. … The federal government has neglected commitments made by Congress to western states and the time or their admission is dispose of their large swaths of federal land.”

Lee continued, “I have been wrongfully portrayed by some in the media as being somehow against this historical recognition, and against commemorating, as a warning to future generations and to honor the victims of the past, one of this nations and its government’s tragic missteps. I continue to negotiate in good faith to find a way forward with this bill.”

After the floor exchange, the Senate unanimously passed a compromise bill that would allow for the federal acquisition of the site at no cost to taxpayers.

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Utah Sen. Mike Lee drops opposition after drawing outrage, internment camp bill advances