Shonosuke Tanaka: Immigrant and Internee

This month Untangle Immigration returns to the story of the Tanaka family. The initial blog on the Tanakas was June 13, 2020 with Graduation Stories.

Shonosuke Tanaka, still in his teens, immigrated to the U.S. in 1900. Even before he arrived, anti-Japanese sentiment was already brewing. In 1893, the San Francisco Board of Education attempted to introduce segregation for Japanese American children, but the Japanese government intervened with protests.

Seven years later, in 1900, young Tanaka immigrated as a contract worker for the Northern Pacific railroad. Like other Japanese workers, he likely lived in a boxcar and was paid below market wages, probably about $1.10 a day. After his contract ended, he moved to Seattle where he studied English and worked as a kitchen helper. There he learned how to cook Western dishes. Next, he moved to Cordova, Alaska, and started his first café where he fed copper miners. Finally, he moved on to Juneau and started the Star Café in 1907. By 1912, the same year Alaska became a U.S. territory, he had moved his restaurant to South Franklin street and called it the City Café. His new location positioned him to feed the working men of the nearby mining mill, harbor and industrial area.

Japanese immigrants could not own property in the continental United States, but in the Alaskan territory, Shonosuke was able to purchase a home. Then, at age forty, Mr. Tanaka returned to his village in Japan to marry 19-year-old Nobu—an arranged marriage. The two returned to Juneau where they began their family, eventually having five children, all U.S. citizens, by virture of their birth in a U.S. territory.

The business thrived as Tanaka worked there 14-15 hours a day. The children thrived as well, though Teddy, the second to youngest, drowned at a young age. As the other children grew, the older ones enjoyed school, community and church events, while also working in the café. When his oldest, John and his friend needed funds to publish their 1941 high school yearbook, Shonosuke helped foot the bill.

By the time the nation of Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Shonosuke had invested thirty five years in the U.S. or in its territory of Alaska. So, why hadn’t he become a citizen? Because citizenship was not a possibility for non-European immigrants. It was only in 1952 that the Senate and House voted the McCarran-Walter Act which allowed Japanese immigrants to become naturalized U.S. citizens, 7 years after World War II.

The Monday after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Shonosuke’s school-aged children arrived home from school to learn their father had been arrested simply for being Japanese.

The next post–Looking beyond Pearl Harbor–considers the reasons for Japanese internment.


Quiet Defiance: Alaska’s Empty Chair Story, Karleen Grummett, There’s A Long, Ignominious Trail of Bans, Registries and Forced Relocation, Jorge Encinas, Feb. 3, 2017.

Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, Japanese, David J. Wishart, Editor.,some%20became%20owners%20of%20small%20businesses%20and%20farms.

Photo: Japanese railroad workers at the turn of the century

DACA: The What and the Why

Today I’ll address the content of DACA and briefly look at different perspectives of why it came to be. My goal is not to convince you of anything, but to put some information out there.

Did you know that between 10 and 22 million undocumented immigrants reside in the U.S.? The numbers startle us.

Millions of immigrants from Canada and Mexico and other countries either overstay their permitted visits or enter the United States without going through a documented process. Some of those immigrants have their minor children with them. If they stay for an extended period, at some point these minor children grow up and, as they deal with the practicalities of life, discover that they are in this country without documentation. Such immigrants are sometimes called Dreamers.

Congress has been notoriously reluctant to deal with immigration policy, so presidents sometimes shape immigration policy through executive order (see my previous post). In 2012, President Obama introduced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to defer deportation of certain undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors who had continuously resided in the country since 2007. DACA recipients cannot get or retain their status if they have been convicted of a felony, a major misdemeanor, or three minor misdemeanors. And this status must be renewed every two years. So, in the unlikely event that a DACA recipient turns to crime, they cannot renew their status.

As a result, 888,765 individuals requested this deferral of deportation and 710,842 were granted DACA status.

DACA provides the opportunity for applicants to continue their education and, in some cases, to work, but it does not provide a path to citizenship, or access to federal programs like SNAP(food stamps), regular Medicaid, or Social Security. So working DACA recipients pay taxes into Social Security and Medicaid—programs they can never access.

Why did President Obama create the DACA program? Some conservatives say, “This is a ploy to win the Latino vote. Undocumented immigrants need to be kicked out. It doesn’t matter how they got here.” Some liberals say, “DACA is an act of compassion extended to those who have grown up here and have little or no connection to their country of citizenship.”

A third possibility that neither side usually mentions: DACA may be purely pragmatic. Our immigration system needs comprehensive reform to deal with the realities of our Southern border and our need for laborers willing to take less desirable positions which are difficult to staff. With 10 to 22 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., many serving in sectors where their labor is needed, how can authorities prioritize whose deportation is the most urgent and whose has a much lower priority? DACA essentially identifies those who would otherwise be good citizens, were they born here. It defers the deportation of those who did not knowingly violate immigration law and who have been screened to ensure they are law-abiding.

A fourth possibility held by cynics holds that DACA accomplishes little in the face of a massive problem. DACA only defers the deportation of between three and seven per cent of all undocumented immigrants.

If you are happy with DACA, the recent Supreme Court decision is a reprieve allowing recipients to reapply for their status for an additional two years. If you disagree with DACA and are eager to see undocumented immigrants deported, there are still between 9.25 and 21.25 million undocumented immigrants that are not protected from deportation. The lower figure is the approximate population of Houston, Chicago and Los Angeles combined–enough to keep ICE busy for a long time.

In the meantime, responsible citizens can demand their senators and representatives enact meaningful immigration reform.

March for DACA and TPS” by vpickering is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Featured photo above)

Executive Orders about Immigration and DACA: How to Make People Mad

Untangle Immigration began with a story about Japanese internment. That story will continue after exploring the current issue of the Supreme Court decision (announced today, June 18, 2020) regarding DACA.

The Supreme Court did not allow the current administration to rescind DACA protections for law-abiding immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors without documentation. I’d like to look at DACA protections more closely on another day, but first a word about executive orders and policies, in collaboration with my friend, Tiffany Carnefix:

In 2012, then-President Obama signed an executive order creating DACA. This order legally protected from deportation law-abiding people who were brought to the United States without documentation as children. Obama’s order made a lot of people angry because they thought the President shouldn’t have the power to take such an action.

After President Trump took over the Oval Office, he signed many executive orders and made policy changes which have made it more difficult for people to legally immigrate to the United States, angering a whole different set of people. His Justice Department also decided to rescind DACA. The last protections expired in March 2020, pending the court’s decision.

Many people think presidents shouldn’t have the power to take these kinds of actions.

Question: We all learned in school that Congress is the only branch of government that can make laws, so is any of this even legal?

Answer: Yes. Except when it isn’t.

Only Congress can create immigration laws, but since the polarized legislative branch rarely agrees on immigration-related matters, these laws rarely change. The last major changes were made after 9-11, in response to terrorism. These broad immigration laws lack detail, so policies fill in the gaps. A presidential administration can easily and legally make policy decisions or issue executive orders to completely change the way immigration works without ever changing the law.

However, when people complain about these changes and challenge them in court, the courts may declare a policy change or executive order legal or not legal—that is, consistent or inconsistent with existing law. So executive orders may take years to take effect. The courts may also prevent them from becoming policy.

Today the Supreme Court decided that the way DACA was ended does not meet the standard required by law. “We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies,” wrote Justice John Roberts. “‘The wisdom’ of those decisions ‘is none of our concern.’ We address only whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action.”

Immigration policies such as DACA impact hundreds of thousands of people. What a great reminder to pray for decision makers at all levels to “do justly and love mercy,” since God values both.

Photo credit: “The Supreme Court” by WEBN-TV is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Graduation Stories

Graduation season ended last week for my family and friends. Socially-distanced ceremonies, video recognitions, and drive-by diploma pickups transformed a familiar occasion into something unique. My niece, Jenna Moye, worked her way through college and graduated from Texas Tech this year. She watched her name on a television screen from a Houston suburb. My friend’s son, Mustafa Syed, had a delayed, socially-distanced graduation in front of limited guests at Plano East High School. He’s headed to UNT for a 7-year program that includes undergraduate school and medical school.

John Tanaka, the class valedictorian of his school, missed graduating with his class. Editor of the school paper and a key member of the yearbook staff, he also worked every day at the City Café. Like many of this year’s graduates, John got a diploma, but missed graduating alongside his classmates. But unlike Jenna and Mustafa, John learned in February that he wouldn’t enjoy a traditional graduation—February 1942.

While snow fell on December 7, 1941 in Juneau in the U.S. territory of Alaska, word of the bombing of Pearl Harbor stunned the community. The next day, John Tanaka’s immigrant father—a local businessman and U.S. resident for over twenty years–was arrested by the FBI, as were all adult male Japanese immigrants, though they had committed no crimes. Shonosuke’s arrest forced the closure of their family restaurant.

In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the removal of Japanese from the West Coast. So, John learned he likely would not graduate with his friends and classmates. And in late April, John, his mother and siblings were removed from Juneau without his still-detained father and taken to horse stables at the Puyallup Fairgrounds in Seattle. That’s where they were living when John’s class graduated. His class left an empty chair to honor the absence of their friend and valedictorian.

In August, the family was relocated to live in tarpaper barracks at a desolate Idaho detention center called Minidoka. They remained separated from their detained husband and father until 1944 when John’s father, Shonosuke, was able to join them in the Minidoka internment camp.

Ultimately, 120,000 people were removed from their communities. Sixty-two per cent of them were U.S. citizens—74,000 Japanese Americans like John and his sisters and brother.

The Empty Chair Memorial (pictured below) is the bronze replica of the chair left empty at John Tanaka’s graduation. It pays tribute to incarcerated members of the Juneau community.

Next week I’ll begin to explore Shonosuke’s story, and what led to the multi-year incarceration of 74,000 U.S. citizens, as well as tens of thousands of legal immigrants.


Phone interview with Alice Tanaka Hikido, December 2016

Quiet Defiance: Alaska’s Empty Chair Story, Karleen Grummett, 2016

Welcome to Untangle Immigration

The beginning of June, 2020, promises to be one of the oddest times possible to launch a blog that focuses on immigrants and immigration. Immigration is paused in the United States due to COVID-19 and racism is the current focus of the world following the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

However, the exploration of immigration issues involves looking back, looking forward as well as looking at the present, so I’ve got loads of material. If you have an interest in a thoughtful look at the flow of people around the world, some snapshots of immigrants, and the impact of immigration on the United States and elsewhere in the world, I hope you’ll consider following me here at Untangle Immigration.

Beth Barron