Skip to Main Content

A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States: Historical Actions Against Immigrants

This guide focuses on the civil rights that various groups have fought for within the United States.

Historical Actions Against Immigrants: Internment Camps During World War II

The attack on the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii territory by the Japanese on December 7, 1942 instigated the United States' involvement in World War II.  On December 8th, the United States declared war on Japan.  On December 11th, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.  On February 19, 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.  This Executive Order gave the Federal government the power to define geographical areas within the United States as military zones. Public Law 503 was subsequently enacted, which provided the Federal government enforcement power of Executive Order 9066.  With the creation of military zones within the United States, the United States military was able to identify, relocate, and intern peoples defined as enemy aliens -- people of Japanese, Italian, or German descent.  This internment applied to non-naturalized lawful immigrants, as well as citizens.   


Japanese Internment

Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans suffered greatly under Executive Order 9066.  Japanese immigrants, or naturalized citizens of Japanese descent were first identified by information provided for the United States Census and then assembled, voluntarily or through forced removal, into  Wartime Civil Control Administration Assembly Centers (WCCA) in California, Oregon, and Washington.  By March of 1942, War Relocation Authority Relocation Centers (WRA) were given control over the housing of the detainees.  On January 2, 1945 the exclusionary zones created under military authority were disbanded; throughout 1945 and 1946 the concentration camps were closed. The WRA was officially closed on June 26, 1946 by Executive Order 9742.  

Detention wreaked havoc on the lives of Japanese Americans; many lost personal property, long-term leases on their farms, or were forced to sell real property.  The passage of the Japanese-American Claims Act of 1948 (P.L. 80-886, 80 H.R. 3999)  did little to assist Japanese Americans with the recovery of the value of their property and many Japanese-Americans were left without sufficient income and support after internment ended.


Notable Supreme Court Cases:

  • Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U.S. 81 (1943) - in this case, the court held that a curfew imposed on a group of immigrants  (in this case, Japanese Americans) was constitutional because the nation was at war with the country from which the immigrants originated. This case was overturned in the 1980s.
  • Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944) - this case, which has not been overturned, held that it was not unconstitutional to keep Japanese immigrants in internment camps. The reasoning was that the need to protect against espionage weighed against the individual rights of Japanese Americans within the camps. This is notable because of the fact that this case is still "good law" and may be used by the incoming regime as an excuse for something like a Muslim registry.


German Internment

Unlike the Japanese-American population, the German-American population present in the United States at the time Germany declared war on the United States was numerous and geographically diverse. In 1940 1.2 million people of German birth lived in the United States; five million Americans were children of German parents, and at least one million more children had at least one German parent. (See Personal Justice Denied, p. 289.)  Approximately 1,200 German nationals were detained at the start of the war and 11,000 German-Americans were detained during the war by the Enemy Alien Control Program.  (See Judgment Without Trial, p. 124.)


Italian Internment

After the declaration of war in December of 1941, the United States began actions to identify and control the movement of all Italian immigrants and naturalized citizens of Italian descent, a population of approximately 600,000 people.  Registration was required and the carrying of identification papers was mandated.  Italian-Americans were also subjected to removal from "restricted areas," travel restrictions, a curfew, and were not allowed to own cameras, weapons, flashlights, or short-wave radios.  Approximately 1600 Italian-Americans were arrested and 250 Italian-Americans were incarcerated in military camps.  These actions created an atmosphere of harassment which had an impact on Italian-American schools, social clubs, and organizations. 

The restrictions placed on Italian-Americans were lifted on October 12, 1942 (Columbus Day).  Those incarcerated in internment camps were released after the surrender of Italy to the Allies on September 8, 1943.


Selected Library Resources:

  • Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied, D769.8.A6 P47 1983
  • Lorraine K. Bannai, Enduring Conviction: Fred Korematsu and His Quest for JusticeKF228.K59 B36 2015
  • Gordon K. Hirabayashi et al., A Principled Stand: The Story of Hirabayashi v. United StatesKF228.H565 H57 2013 (also available as an eBook)
  • John Christgau, "Enemies:" World War II Alien Internment, D769.8.A6 C5 1985 (available from the Founders Library)
  • Paula Branca-Santos, "Injustice Ignored: The Internment of Italian-Americans During World War II," 13 Pace Intl Law Review 151 (2001)
  • Stephen R. Fox, The Unknown Internment: An Oral History of the Relocation of Italian Americans During World War II, D769.8.A6 F66 1990 (available from the Founders Library) 
  • Arnold Krammer, Undue Process: The Untold Story of America's German Alien Internees (1997) D769.8.A6 K73 1997
  • James Dickerson, Inside America's Concentration Camps: Two Centuries of Internment and Torture, available as an eBook (2010) through Howard University Libraries 
  • Eric K. Yamamoto, Race, Rights, and Reparation: Law and the Japanese American InternmentKF7224.5 .R33 2001
  • Tetsuden Kashima, Judgment Without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment During World War II, D769.8.A6 K37 2003