By Marilyn Grace Miller
New Orleans played a major role in the internment of migrants and refugees during World War II—a role of which many are unaware. What can we learn from this chapter of history, and how can we apply these lessons to the present day?
Displacement, family separation, indefinite detention, and uncertainty regarding the present and the future—these are the conditions faced by contemporary asylum seekers and other migrants hoping to enter the United States. They also characterize the experiences of some 30,000 men, women, and children of European and Japanese descent who were interned in U.S.-operated detention facilities between 1941 and 1946 under the Latin American Enemy Alien Control Program. As a primary port of entry for named “alien enemies” deported to the United States and the site of an internment facility in the Algiers neighborhood, New Orleans played an important role in this little-known aspect of World War II history.
More than 100,000 persons of Japanese descent in the U.S., two-thirds of whom were American citizens, were detained domestically during World War II. Another internment effort reached into fifteen neighboring republics in efforts to bolster hemispheric security during wartime. With the help of the FBI, Latin American officials named, apprehended, and detained noncitizens who had arrived in Central and South America throughout the early twentieth century from areas that by 1941 had come under Nazi or Fascist control. Though only about one in ten detainees was an active Nazi or pro-Fascist, the “dangerous alien enemies” were deported to camps in the United States. Many of these individuals arrived at the Port of New Orleans aboard military vessels en route to camps in other states. A small number, including an unlikely contingent of sixty Jewish refugees, were held at Camp Algiers, an immigrant quarantine station on New Orleans’s West Bank, about three miles from the French Quarter.
A small percentage of nonresidents held in U.S. detention returned to the countries where they were apprehended after the war ended, but most did not, making New Orleans a point of no return for those who came through its port or were held at the Camp Algiers site. My new book with LSU Press, Port of No Return, investigates who was targeted and detained as an enemy alien and why, what their experiences of internment were like, and how those experiences irrevocably changed the internees and their families. How long were they held? What did they say or write about their experiences? To whom could they appeal for help? While there are few living witnesses to this episode of history, archival documents, personal letters, diplomatic and aid organization correspondence, and governmental records all provide important clues that help us understand the human toll of this wartime security measure.
What lessons regarding U.S.-Latin American relations and immigration debates does this slice of New Orleans history offer us today? The episode illustrates Latin America’s own importance as a historical haven for a wide variety of immigrants and refugees and warns us of the dangers of blanket categorizations of any group of persons on the basis of country of origin, religion, or race. As the Crescent City takes stock of its first three hundred years and looks ahead to the next century, understanding its role in receiving detained “enemy aliens” from Latin America during World War II can equip its citizens to better address the contemporary challenge of providing a gateway to the Americas for other seekers of refuge and opportunity.
[A version of this essay was originally published in the Tulane School of Liberal Arts Magazine in Spring/Summer 2020.]
Marilyn Grace Miller is associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Tulane University. She is the author of Rise and Fall of the Cosmic Race: The Cult of Mestizaje in Latin America and has published widely on Latin American literature and culture.
While most people are aware of the World War II internment of thousands of Japanese citizens and residents of the United States, few know that Germans, Austrians, and Italians were also apprehended and held in internment camps under the terms of the Enemy Alien Control Program. Port of No Return tells the story of New Orleans’s key role in this complex secret operation through the lens of Camp Algiers, located just three miles from downtown New Orleans.