My mother, the enemy alien

  • November 27, 2009
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One Sunday over brunch several months ago, the family was having a political discussion about racial profiling.

In her inimitable way, my mother turned to me and said, “You know, I was an enemy alien.”

“What? When?”

In recent years, my mother, who is now in her eighties, has begun to talk about her past, but I was completely shocked by this new revelation.

“When I was 14-years old.”

I looked at her skeptically.

“Really,” she said.

After everyone left, I researched the topic. Of course I knew about the Japanese, but Germans and Italians? And 14-year-old girls?

Turns out, immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the government, seeking to protect the country from spies and saboteurs, fingerprinted and forced people of German, Italian and Japanese decent — even children over 14 years old — to carry identification cards and restricted their travel, seized personal property and interned some of them. Award-winning author Stephen Fox, who has written a book called Fear Itself: Inside the FBI Roundup of German Americans during World War II, reports that 3,000 Italian nationals and 11,000 German nationals — including a few Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany — were detained in the U.S. More than 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during World War II.

For immigrants like my mother who had lived in Nazi Germany, the designation was terrifying. “The Germans (in America) were issued that card as an enemy alien because they were German,” said one Jewish refugee, who had arrived in America in 1934 when he was a child. “We Jews, on the other hand, were stateless according to the German law under Hitler.”

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