Emil Guillermo: Don't be fooled, the SCOTUS ruling on Korematsu still holds; Remembering a modest immigrant

Image for Emil Guillermo: Don't be fooled, the SCOTUS ruling on Korematsu still holds; Remembering a modest immigrant

Fred Korematsu passed on in 2005, but he’s worth celebrating every year, especially this year on January 30, 100 years after his birth in Oakland, Calif.

You’ll recall Korematsu is the American who realized that his own government saw him as the enemy when it issued an executive order to incarcerate Japanese Americans during WWII.

Korematsu wouldn’t stand for it.

He defied the order, was arrested, and was used by the sensationalistic media to fan the flames of hate among warmongers at the time.

It was the Northern California ACLU that came to the rescue to test the constitutionality of the internment.

Korematsu’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court and he lost, 6-3. The court found it harder to defy the wishes of President Roosevelt (sound familiar?). It was far easier to defy the civil liberties of Korematsu.

But in 1983, Korematsu’s attorneys found an Army document that acknowledged the government presented false information to the court.

The suppressed information was enough for a group of young Japanese American lawyers to vacate Korematsu’s conviction in a federal district court in San Francisco.

The government never bothered to appeal the case at the district court level. And it didn’t bother to overturn the old case at the Supreme Court.

So the 1944 SCOTUS decision stands.

Some people think the Supreme Court overturned the case when Chief Justice John Roberts commented during the travel ban case, Trump v. Hawaii, last year.

But it didn’t.

Roberts was merely rebutting Justice Sotomayor’s assertion that Korematsu and the travel ban were related. Roberts said Korematsu was irrelevant. Yet at the same time, he did manage to say “Korematsu was gravely wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history, and-–to be clear—has no place in law under the Constitution.”

Sounds good, but if the court of history were good enough, we could stop crying over Merrick Garland.

The fact is it provided some cover for Roberts, as he then went on to follow exactly what the Supreme Court did in 1944.

Roberts deferred to the president, in this case Trump, and upheld the travel ban.

What about Roberts’ words? They’re in the category of “dicta,” which is to say deep in the weeds of opinion for legal scholars to ponder. Or good for the “court of history.”

But in real court, it did not overturn the case as many believed when hearing the news.

A year later, we still have the travel ban. And the internment ruling against Korematsu still stands. Indeed, despite what Roberts says, the very ruling could be used again to justify the taking of individual civil liberties. Again.

It makes remembering Fred Korematsu, civil rights hero, more important than ever.

In California, January 30 has been Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution since 2010.

Hawaii, Virginia, Florida and New York City have all recognized this day in perpetuity. Seven other states have recognized the day by proclamation.

On Jan. 26, I had the distinct honor of being part of the San Francisco celebration. I did an excerpt of my solo play, “Emil Amok: Sex and Affirmative Action,” specifically the segment entitled “Before Islamophobia, Filipinophobia.” It’s about a time in the 1930s when Filipino immigrants like my father were seen as sexual threats to white society–to the point that laws were changed to repatriate Filipinos in America. It’s a story seldom told. And it shows how history can and does repeat itself.

It was especially bittersweet to do an excerpt of my play for the assembly because it is the story of my family’s immigration history from 1928 to this day. After racist quotas limiting Filipino immigration to 50 people a year were abolished by the 1965 Immigration Act, one Guillermo was allowed entry. That Guillermo petitioned for five other brothers and sisters. They finally cleared the process in 1995.

The son of one of those brothers, my cousin David, died this month.

Waiting for the legal immigration process to take its course nearly negated the experience for David. He finally arrived when he was in his late 50s. The only jobs he could find were at McDonalds and doing housekeeping. No matter, he was a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen. At his funeral service, everyone recalled how he was grateful and loving, a quiet and simple immigrant who lived a better life here than he would have in the Philippines.

That’s what immigration should be about—a better life. Not about “merit,” one of Trump’s ideas of immigration reform.

It’s America, not Harvard. A better life for some is just to have access to food, job, and shelter; or to be free from persecution and discrimination.

All of these things are worth fighting for. There are too many quiet Americans like my cousin David.

Korematsu is the reminder that all these rights can easily be taken away, unless we stand up and speak out.


Two more shows, Feb. 1 and Feb. 7 in San Francisco of my solo play, “Emil Amok: Sex and Affirmative Action,” at the Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., in San Francisco.

Image by AALDEF

It’s a solo show festival, so you get my show and one other fine performance.

It’s s like getting two for one.

Click here to buy tickets:

And use my special friends and family promo code: SPF2EG$20.

The Korematsu Foundation’s celebration took place in the Presidio in San Francisco.

It’s also the site for the exhibit, “Then They Came For Me” which runs through May.

Image by AALDEF

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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