ALC @ 50: Justice is Ours to Build

January 30, 2023 Perspective

This past year, Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus turned 50. We’re taking a look back at powerful cases and campaigns from our history, including those that continue to shape our legal services, advocacy, and community outreach today. Our 50th anniversary celebration theme, “Tomorrow’s World Is Ours To Build,” takes its cue from Yuri Kochiyama’s inspiring call to action.

In celebration of our 50th anniversary, former and current ALC staff met to talk about the history of our Coram Nobis cases and work protecting the civil rights of community members targeted by national security policies. Watch the full video: Justice is Ours to Build.

On February 19, 1942, 81 years ago this year, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 and ordered the incarceration of Japanese Americans, along with some Italian and German Americans, and labeled them as threats to national security. They were forbidden to stay in their homes in the first order and in another order, forbidden to leave. These orders criminalized over 100,000 people for merely existing.

In 1983, legal teams that included ALC were assembled to represent Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Minoru Yasui, all three of whom defied these orders and were convicted of violating the law in 1942. They filed Coram Nobis petitions in three separate federal district courts to overturn their convictions by taking a stand against the government’s baseless claims that had persisted for decades.

Don Tamaki
, who served as ALC’s executive director from 1980 to 1983 and who was a part of the Coram Nobis legal team for Fred Korematsu, commented during the panel discussion:

“There was only one thing wrong with the entire narrative of Japanese Americans being spies and being prone to being disloyal. The whole thing was entirely made up and the government knew it at the time.”

Don Tamaki

Shirin Sinnar, was a staff attorney at ALC from 2006 to 2009 who focused on profiling and FBI surveillance. She expressed solidarity with the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated and how their stories and fights for justice helped her after 9/11 when Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Americans disappeared into immigration facilities after being wrongfully accused and scapegoated.

Eric Yamamoto, co-counsel of the Coram Nobis case with ALC, also reflected on why it’s important for marginalized groups to step forward and protect each other’s freedoms. Fred Korematsu exemplified this through speaking out and authoring amicus briefs after the 9/11 attacks.

Today, ALC’s National Security & Civil Rights team represents community members who are surveilled, harassed, and targeted by the government, including the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of State. In collaboration with local police departments, these agencies’ so-called national security programs often rely on stereotypes and racist rubrics to mark people as terrorists or threats to the country, echoing the underpinnings of Executive Order 9066.

The parallels discussed by the panel emphasize the need for cross racial solidarity and coalition building, as well as actively learning the history of different marginalized groups.

“Full vindication for the Japanese Americans will arrive only when we learn that, even in times of crisis; we must guard against prejudice and keep uppermost our commitment to law and justice.”

Fred Korematsu

Learn more about Japanese American stories and the history of incarceration at Densho, Fred’s legacy at the Fred Korematsu Institute, and ALC’s work at the National Security & Civil Rights program.