A Call for Buddhist Leaders to Protest Inhumane Treatment of Migrant Children – Lending Our Support to Tsuru for Solidarity
Tsuru for Solidarity, a nonviolent and direct action project, was initially created by Japanese American community leaders Satsuki Ina, Nancy Ukai, and Mike Ishii in conjunction with the March 2019 Pilgrimage to Crystal City, a former WWII concentration camp in Texas that housed over 2,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, and Protest at the South Texas Family Residential Center (located 40 miles away in Dilley, Texas).
The Dilley facility holds over a thousand asylum seekers, mostly women, children, and infants from Central America and Mexico. Here, the women and children try to sleep on concrete floors while being deliberately prodded by Border Patrol agents all day and night, try to live on two bologna sandwiches for four days whilst denied bathroom visits. These examples of harassment by the Border Patrol are attempts to persuade the refugees to turn back before they have a chance to have an interview with an asylum officer.
We have also read inspection reports of numerous facilities – such as the ones in El Paso and Clint, Texas – where children have been denied showers, soap, or toothpaste whilst trying to take care of the younger infants. Administration officials have asserted that basic human hygiene does not have to be afforded these children, while border agents tell these migrants that if they want to drink water, they need to retrieve it from their cell’s toilets; again, to enact our nation’s “tough” deterrence immigration policies favored by some.
Fort Sill, Oklahoma – WWII Concentration Camp for Japanese Immigrants and 2019 Concentration Camp for Migrant Children?
When the Department of Health and Human Services announced on June 11 that up to 1,400 unaccompanied migrant children would be transferred from Texas to Fort Sill, Oklahoma – a former WWII internment camp that held 700 persons of Japanese ancestry, including 90 Buddhist priests, Tsuru for Solidarity mobilized another protest on June 22 in Oklahoma. I have now had the privilege of joining two peaceful protests held at Fort Sill this summer, the one held on June 22 and a second gathering on July 20.
June 22, 2019: Folding Paper Cranes as Protest with Tsuru for Solidarity
Despite threats from the military police at the Fort Sill gate, several WWII Japanese American camp survivors – all of whom were children during their wartime incarceration – made moving statements connecting their personal experiences with the situation faced today by migrant children seeking refuge and asylum in the United States (see Democracy Now! coverage). A protest rally then was held in a nearby park with roughly 200 Oklahoma residents, representing a diverse cross-section of protestors: immigrant rights advocates such as Dream Action Oklahoma, ACLU Oklahoma, Black Lives Matter, and the American Indian Movement (see the LA Times’ coverage). I had the honor of officiating a Buddhist ceremony at the start of the rally – chanting the Heart Sutra while six camp survivors offered incense in front a Buddha statue that had been carved in Manzanar in 1943, which I had borrowed from LA’s Zenshuji Temple. This ceremony was part of a healing ceremony led by Michael Topaum, the spiritual leader of the American Indian Movement, which made visible Fort Sill's history as a prisoner-of-war camp for Apache tribal members. Michael's presence at the protest, among other members of the American Indian Movement, connected the current separation of children from their families and their inhospitable incarceration to the U.S.’s historical practice of forcefully removing tribal members' children from their homes, and transferring them to so-called “Indian Schools.”
My Dharma message during the ceremony at the protest was “How do paper cranes fly?” The small group of protesters were joined in spirit by the thousands of people who had folded the origami cranes. But what can paper cranes do to alleviate the suffering endured by so many? One of the classic Buddhist symbol of liberation is likened to a bird soaring freely in the sky. We say that for a bird to fly, it needs both wings:W the wing of wisdom and the wing of compassion. What I witnessed at Fort Sill was the embodiment of all the elements necessary to make paper cranes fly. The enormity of our current challenge may seem overwhelming, but Buddhist practice does not shy away from challenges – our bodhisattva vows include “Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all. Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them. The dharmas are boundless; I vow to master them. The Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it.”
July Protest: Buddhist Clergy and Lay Leaders x Tsuru for Solidarity x United We Dream July 20, 2019: A Buddhist Memorial Service as Protest
In early July, Dream Action Oklahoma (affiliated with United We Dream, the nation’s largest immigration youth-led network) announced a second protest at Fort Sill with a wide-ranging coalition of groups, including Tsuru for Solidarity. In anticipation of this protest, I began circulating a letter inviting Buddhist clergy and lay leaders to join me in supporting this protest by making cranes or turning up in Oklahoma to participate in an inter-sectarian Buddhist memorial service. (Click here to read the original letter)
By the day of the protest, about 130 Buddhist leaders had publicly signed on to express their solidarity, and dozens of temples and organizations began folding paper cranes. Twenty-five Buddhist priests and lay leaders held a Buddhist memorial service to honor those who lost their lives at Fort Sill, recalling a joint funeral service held for them on May 13, 1942, officiated by nearly 90 Buddhist priests also incarcerated there. One of the three men who died, Kanesaburo Oshima, was shot in the back of the head by one of the guards the day before the funeral. At Fort Sill, one internee wrote, “Nothing is more transient than human life. . . Smoke from the burning incense stung our eyes. ... the pitiful death of a fellow countryman whose life was shattered when his blood stained the distant desert sands of the Oklahoma plain as the glowing evening sun sank beyond the horizon.”
At this 2019 ceremony, we dedicated any merit derived from the chanting of sutras at the memorial service to the Japanese immigrants who passed away during their WWII incarceration; to all those who suffered at Fort Sill in the past; to the ten children who have died in the border crossing or in custody of the U.S. Border Patrol and other agencies in the past fourteen months; to all the migrants who are facing such difficult circumstances currently; and to the guards and others who are overseeing the children to pray for the prevention of history repeating itself.
Then, on July 24, U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe’s (R-Oklahoma) office relayed to the media that the plans to transfer the migrant children to Fort Sill in the summer of 2019 have been put on hold. And on July 26, the White House contacted Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt about the change in plans, with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announcing that their “UAC (Unaccompanied Alien Children) Program does not have an immediate need to place children in (holding) facilities.”
After repeated, direct action protests, One camp has closed.
We Still Need Your Support
There is still work to be done.
If you are wondering “How can we continue to help?” and “Are there ways in which Buddhists can show support for those who are being detained or participate in non-violent protest?” You can show your concern and support by:
1) FOLDING & SENDING PAPER CRANES - your spirit will be present wherever Tsuru for Solidarity takes the paper cranes, including a May 2020 protest at the White House in Washington DC. Please send your cranes to Duncan Ryuken Williams, c/o Ito Center, 825 Bloom Walk, ACB 130D, Los Angeles, CA 90089-1481. Your name will be added to the Sangha Support Group if you email me about your paper crane folding project.
2) ATTENDING the D.C. protest in May 2020