Colorado Representative Phil Covarrubias starts internment camp controversy

Posted at 1:19 AM, Mar 24, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-24 17:21:04-04

DENVER -- State Representative Phil Covarrubias drew national attention this week for his comments about the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Some say the Adams County Republican appeared to justify the use of internment camps. 

“We keep hearing about how things went down with the Japanese people," Covarrubias said Wednesday, during debate over House Bill 17-1230. “For anyone that has never been in combat, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and all of that was going on, there’s no time to ask questions and find out who is a citizen and who is not.”

That comment drew a stinging response from one of the bill’s sponsors.

“What he said, basically, is that when you’re fearful, you throw the Constitution out the window and that you just round up whoever is making you fearful,” said Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Adams County.

Covarrubias denied that he was trying to justify the use of internment camps.

“Absolutely not,” he told Denver7. “Under no circumstances should any human being be subjected to that kind of treatment, ever.”

Covarrubias said that comment was simply a reflection that the attack on Pearl Harbor started a domino effect, and that in retrospect, it was a bad decision by President Franklin Roosevelt.

Dr. JoAnn Ota Fujioka isn’t buying Covarrubias' explanation.

“I was just infuriated,” she said, “because he has no knowledge of the of the whole milieu that was in play at the time.”

Fujioka was one of nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were rounded up and sent to internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

She said her family raised strawberries in Orange County, Calif., until President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066.

“I was pretty young,” she said, “and don’t remember the camp.” 

Family members told her what happened.

“We were loaded on the trains by armed guards,” she said. “The shades were drawn and we didn’t have any idea where we were going.”

Fujioka said the train took them to Poston, Ariz.

After spending several months there, the family moved to northern Colorado, where her father got a job topping sugar beets and milking cows at the onset of winter.

“We lived in migrant quarters, where there was no heat,” she said. “It was infested with bed bugs.”

Fujioka said there were Japanese-Americans in Colorado who couldn’t travel more than ten miles from home without permission.

She believes the restrictions and forced relocation were related more to bigotry and an attempt to suppress Japanese-American culture than concern about a security threat.

She said that’s why she found Covarrubias’ initial comment so offensive.

“He was assuming, that we, as Japanese Americans, were part of Pearl Harbor and had some connection to it,” she said. “We didn’t. In fact, we were as enraged by that attack as anyone else. In fact, probably more so, because of our heritage.”

Covarrubias said his comment was simply about the domino effect of the horrifying nature of war itself.

“Unfortunately, that’s a sad time for our country,” he said on Thursday.

Fujioka said Japanese-Americans were treated with suspicion long before Pearl Harbor.

House Bill 1230 will be debated again on the House floor either Friday morning or early next week.


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