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Breaking Faith, Again

HALF a century ago, America broke faith with 112,000 of its citizens and residents. These were the Japanese-Americans on the West Coast who, in the days after Pearl Harbor, were summarily rounded up, stripped of property, separated from loved ones, and herded into barbed-wire compounds for the duration of the war. Security risks, they were called, on only one piece of evidence - the land of their ancestors. It remains a dark blot on United States history. Last year the US government took action to redress that great wrong. It issued a formal apology to the roughly 60,000 internees still alive, and further pledged $20,000 to each of them or their heirs. The money is really just a token of US sincerity, for it can't begin to compensate the internees for the loss of freedom they suffered and, in many cases, the near confiscation of businesses and land. Still, the money is important both as symbol and - especially for the many surviving internees who are elderly - as substance.

Now the US, having once pleaded national exigency to deprive these Americans of their rights, threatens to do it again. Of the $1.2 billion required to make the payments - which, under the 1988 law, are to be completed in 10 years - a congressional committee has earmarked only $20 million this year, or enough to pay just 1,000 internees. The nation, it's said, can't afford more.

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No one denies the difficulty of setting budget priorities in this era of huge deficits. Surely, though, cuts can be made elsewhere than in a long overdue restitution program for Americans who already have suffered so much.

At the very least, Congress should heed the plea of Cressey Nakagawa, president of the Japanese-American Citizens League. He urges that $320 million be promptly appropriated for the 16,000 internees who are at least 70, a group that is shrinking at the rate of 200 deaths a month.

In 1941 the United States was chintzy in its application of due process to innocent Japanese-Americans. It shouldn't compound that error 50 years later by being chintzy in its restitution to those who are left.

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