Miya Iwataki | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"

Miya Iwataki: Asian Pacific Islander Against Prop 187

Miya Iwataki: Well, I'm a long-time community activist for social justice mainly working in the Japanese American and Asian Pacific Islander communities but also doing a lot of solidarity work with other communities of color. I think one of the proudest moments of my life was when we worked for over a decade to win redress and reparations for the Japanese Americans who were unjustly imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II. That was a real positive community effort.

At that time, I worked for Congressman Mervyn Dymally, who was Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. The African American, and Latino community, and Native American community, and social-justice loving people really supported our redress struggle. I had a radio program at KPFK called East Wind for about 12 years. I'm doing more writing now and lots of other stuff because I've been around for a long time. I think when Prop 187 was first introduced, because of the impetus behind it, and the type of media coverage it was getting, it was looked at as mostly a Latino issue and even people in the Asian community were looking at it that way.

Many of us that had been working in the area of Human Services knew that it was not just a Latino issue. The language of the proposition was really vague. It had wording like, "People that were reasonably suspect." With a mean-spirited proposition like this, that would prevent any undocumented immigrant from getting health services, social services, educational services. This really had a big impact on the Asian community because if you were a racially visible minority, if you had an accent, or even worse yet, if you didn't speak English, then you were going to be asked to prove your documentation regardless of your status.

Prop 187 backfired on the people that introduced it. Rather than trivializing our communities, it galvanized the Latino community and the Asian Pacific Islander community. If I can just take a step back, in the Asian community, the first Asians to come over were the Japanese and the Chinese and then Filipinos and Koreans. In the '70s and '80s, we had a large influx of Asians from Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Lao. Each one of our communities spoke different languages, had a different history, had different cultural practices and beliefs. I was in the area of health, so I know that we all had different health practices.

What we saw in the Asian community, at that time, were a lot of individual organizations. The Thai CDC, the Chinatown Service Center, United Cambodian Community, we all had our separate organizations. What Prop 187 did was-- This was an issue taking away our social, human, health, and educational services from our immigrants. That was an issue that affected all of our communities and it really brought us together.

When we first started discussing this issue and what it would do to our community, and we formed Asian Americans against Proposition 187, we had 60 organizations that were a part of the network. Prop 187 really did galvanize the Asian community. It's different because as Asian American people, we've gone through different stages. There was a time when we were only a checkbox called "Other" on forms. We had to really fight with the census and other institutional agencies to at least just put "Asian" down, and that was a big victory. We were recognized, moving from being an invisible minority to saying, "Hey, we're here, you got to count us."

What started happening, as more and more people came over and our various communities grew, we started being concerned about, "We're not all just Asians. We need to disaggregate the data. We need to talk about what the specific needs of our various Asian ethnic communities are." We started moving towards having organizations that were specific towards specific ethnic groups. Sometimes, we would be looking at the same pots of money or the same services. Although we were all working together, we did have these differences, and sometimes the language, culture, cultural beliefs, and our practices were even more pronounced than us being Asians in America.

When Prop 187 happened and threatened all of our communities and threatened our social services, it was really a clarion call bringing us together. At that time, I think we were about 10% of the population in California. We were not considered that much of a threat especially acting individually, and we knew that if we came together, we could make more of an impact. With the Latino community, they were pretty organized around this. But in our work in different areas as communities of color that are racially-visible minorities, that have language issues and specific cultural needs, in different areas, we've always worked together.

I worked at LA County at the time. I was the director of the Office of Diversity and Cultural Competency. Our strongest allies were the Latinos, especially people working in the area of immigrant rights and working with immigrants. There was a lot of contact with [unintelligible 00:07:17] and GLAHR and other organizations. Those ties have remained strong throughout the years. When you're working in the field of health for immigrants or social service for immigrants, you're going to cross paths all the time. The familiarity was there but the solidarity really built up during Prop 187.

Well, when Prop 187 happened, we worked very closely getting all of the social service organizations together but there are also a number of people that were maybe long-time, old activists from the movement of the '60s and '70s. Our first large organization was Asian Pacific Islanders Against Prop 187. We were the Asian arm of Californians Against Proposition 187, which were the anti-Prop 187 organizations all up and down the coast. At that time, I was the Southern California co-chair of Californians Against Prop 187. We had this broad coalition, but we moved towards also forming an organization called API FIRE, Asian Pacific Islanders for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment.

I think part of the reason was that we knew that our main goal was to defeat Prop 187, but we had a broader goal too for immigrant rights and empowerment, not just getting rid of Prop 187. We saw the organizing and educating around Prop 187 as an avenue to continue the struggle, to continue mobilizing people. Also, in terms of how Asians came to the United States, the Chinese and Japanese were the first to come in. Our communities were pretty much the most well-organized, and then came the Koreans and the Filipinos. The recent immigrants were from Southeast Asia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos.

A lot of the immigrants that came over during the '70s and '80s did not know that there was a history of racism against Asians in the United States. I think with our work around Prop 187, when we were trying to talk with different organizations about why it was so important that we need to fight this racist initiative, it was an opportunity to talk to people about how this is not the first time this has happened to us. That in the past, we really had to fight a lot of racism. In fact, in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act which barred Chinese from coming to California, that was the first anti-immigration piece of legislation.

It was the only legislation that actually identified a specific minority. That was really important to share with people. Also, for me, as a third-generation Japanese American, I was really impacted when President Roosevelt signed executive Order 9066 which mandated imprisoning all Americans of Japanese ancestry, all 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps during World War II without due process. It was so painful for our grandparents and our parents. They never talked about it to us so we never really knew that much about it. In fact, I have friends that said that when their parents talked about camp, they always thought it was like a summer camp.

When we started organizing around demanding redress and reparations for those years in camp for losing all of our property and losing four or five years of our lives and families being split up and separated-- Look how familiar that sounds today. The Japanese American community really organized to fight for redress and reparations. After 12 long years, we won. We won $20,000 for every survivor, a presidential apology, and an education fund for projects to impart this education and ensure that an injustice like this would not happen again.

My group which was the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations was probably predominantly an activist. When we first started organizing, we wanted redress and reparations now. There were other organizations that were taking it more slow. I was working for Congressman Dymally at the time, and he worked with our group to introduce legislation calling for immediate reparations of $25,000. There was another bill that was introduced to instead establish a presidential commission to study whether or not an injustice was committed, whether or not there was justification for the camps, which in our eyes seemed like, "Oh God it's just going to drag out the process longer."

We had debates about it and we were even thinking, "We should boycott these hearings," until we heard that the original intent was that the commission would hold two hearings in Washington DC with legislators and academics and other [unintelligible 00:13:53] people like that. We thought, "Wow, we should boycott these hearings." Then we thought, "No, if they're only going to have two hearings, where is the voice of the people going to come out?" We started lobbying the commissioners, and we said that if you want to have meaningful hearings, you should have a hearing in every city that has a significant Japanese American population.

We ended up having 20 hearings in different cities. Those hearings were so meaningful. People like our parents and our grandparents who had never even talked about this issue before stood up and testified about what happened during those four years. There were people that had seen their brother shot in the back by a prison guard but never told that information to their kids. There was so many stories of sadness, of heroism that came out and it just was such a bonding feeling of solidarity within our community.

When we won redress and reparations, when that commission came out with a report which stated that there was no military justification for the camps and that the camps were because of race, prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership, it was such a great victory for us and something that we would never forget. With that type of victory and the help that we got from other communities, there's also a responsibility that comes up. We would never allow this to happen again.

When 9/11 happened and the government started racially profiling and targeting Muslims and talking about opening camps up, the Japanese American community was about the first community that stood up and spoke out against using those camps and spoke on behalf of the Muslim community. Bringing it back to today, the government, that Homeland Security or INS or whoever, they're starting to look at some of the camps that the Japanese Americans were imprisoned in during World War 11. They're beginning to look at some of those areas to put migrant children seeking asylum. The Japanese American community once again has to come forward and stand up against those things happening.

This June, there were plans to open a site in Fort Sills, Oklahoma. This site had been used as a prison for some of the Japanese Americans during World War 11. There's a group up north, they're called Tsuru for Solidarity. When they heard about this happening, they organized a contingent to go to Fort Sills, Oklahoma. There are people that are my age or older. They went to protest. They went with the intent that they would willingly commit civil disobedience to bring this issue to the national media. There was so much media coverage because you had people that were in their 80s talking about their camp experience, raising their fist and refusing to move when the armed guards were telling them to move.

It created such national interest and there were people from other communities there too that joined in with them. Because of the national attention and the solidarity, the plans to open that prison at Fort Sills was scrapped. That I think is part of the victory and responsibility of winning redress and sharing the lessons learned today. Prop 187, I believe in a way politicized the Asian Pacific Islander community. As I said earlier, the community was pretty organized in the areas of social and human services but we were not that politically active. When Prop 187 happened, we knew that one way we had to defeat it was we had to vote.

At that time, I believe that 10% of Asians were registered to vote in California but only 5% had voted. There was some statistic like that. Also, we found out that in LA County, there were about 700,000 people that were with Asian Pacific surnames that were eligible to vote but only about a fourth of those people had actually registered. We knew that the main part of the struggle against Prop 187 was at the polls. We began organizing, and the college and university students were really great. They came out at night and various organizations were able to do phone banking at their office. A lot of community-based organizations and even small businesses opened up their--

Like my friend's insurance company opened up their offices after hours so people could phone bank. It was really a learning experience because when you're phone banking, then you can talk to them about why we should vote down Prop 187 and how it's a racist initiative and how this is a continuation of the history of racism that Asians have experienced in this country and how we need to come together. The phone banking was a real positive mechanism to reach out to the community and of course, we had to have people that spoke five or six languages.

I remember that it was a real positive thing, but today, now 25 years later and people are pretty politically astute. Now, when you do phone banking, people just hang up because so many people are phone banking, but at that time, it was a real learning experience. We had never done this before because even though activists like myself who had participated in a lot of things, voting and electoral politics was not something that we had a lot of experience in. The phone banking was a learning experience for us too. We saw a great opportunity to register people to vote after they become naturalized citizens.

We went to the LA Convention Center the weekend that they had several naturalization ceremonies. We set up our tables, we had signs, we had a bunch of volunteers that spoke different languages. We had translated materials, and we registered 1,600 people that weekend. We felt really proud of ourselves, but the funny thing is that when we first went out there early in the morning to set up our tables, we saw a number of tables probably about five or six tables that were already set up by these elderly white women. They looked up at us and they said, "Oh, we're so glad to see young people out here. Usually, we're the only ones registering people to vote."

We looked at each other, and we thought, "Wow, whoever they were, they had it together for a long time." Prop 187 provided a lot of impetus to politicize our organizations in our community and get people to come out and vote. The target of Prop 187 were undocumented immigrants, people who didn't have the right to vote. We talked to them about, if you can't vote on paper, you can vote with your feet on the streets. The undocumented immigrants, even though it was scary because there were INS people around, they came out in force when we had big marches.

I felt really proud of the Asian contingence that we built. On that big march in October of 1994, I think our side estimated 100,000 people, but the media said there were 70,000 people. Regardless, there were a lot of people that marched on City Hall and we had a big march. We organized people and gathered them in Chinatown and then marched from Chinatown to City Hall to join the larger march. It was interesting because Senator Richard Polanco, he may have been the Senate majority leader at the time, but Chinatown was in his district. He came up, and he marched with us. That was good.

I think we felt really strong because there were a lot of us and there are people that are veterans of marches. We had bullhorns and we had a big banner that one of our artists made, and we had Prop 187 buttons. I was looking for them. I wanted to wear it today. I can't find it. I think we had Asian drummers there too. We were making a lot of noise and we had the visibility because of the big banner. Then when we marched over to the main group and then people are cheering because everybody's feeling that solidarity. It felt really good. It felt really powerful.

When we were fighting against Prop 187 and in LA, there was so much support for defeating it. We were so shocked that it passed statewide, but in Los Angeles, we overwhelmingly voted against 187. As I said, I was working at LA County in the Office of Diversity at that time. The board of supervisors, plus most of the county employees hated 187 and so the board of supervisors voted that regardless of what happens, that we will keep providing services to anyone that comes to our doors regardless of their immigration status. Even though Prop 187 won, LA County would have still continued providing services.

I think if LA County did, and I'm sure our own Asian Pacific organizations and the community organizations would continue providing services, but as you know, the courts overruled it. When you work for LA County and you've been an activist, there's not always a lot of things that you can be proud of, but at that time, when the board took that unanimous stance against Prop 187, I felt really proud. I know that Gloria Molina played the leading role in getting that vote. During that time, the ethnic media and all of the Asian ethnic communities was really covering Prop 187. That was really positive because a lot of education could be done through the media.

Also, the LA Times had done good coverage. They had a reporter named Connie Kang from the Korean American community. She was a great reporter. There was another reporter, Leslie Bernstein, and interestingly enough, KPCC had contacted me about talking about Prop 187 because they had looked up the old LA Times articles that had talked about Prop 187 and about the role that Asian Americans played in that. The media did a lot of really good coverage.

I think Prop 187 and the recognition of Prop 187 after 25 years, it has been really positive because it puts what's happening today in an historical context. Even after Prop 187 and API FIRE had continued to work on. After Prop 187, there was Welfare Reform and the Personal Responsibility Act, which was another attack on poor people and it's just continued on and on. I think it's an important lesson, especially because when we see how our communities just came together and fought against it, that's the type of action and response we need to see today.

These programs and the work you're doing in looking back at Prop 187 and the historical context and linking that to today, I think that's really important because what you and other progressive media people are doing, you're connecting the dots. And through talking with different people in different communities, you're re-linking us up again. I'm working with an organization called Nikkei Progressives that's been doing a lot of immigrant rights work. They directly connect what happened to us in World War II and our continuing effort to ensure that no other community suffers an injustice like we did.

They organized a concert called We Got Your Back...Pack. The purpose was to raise money to fill 400 backpacks with basic necessities like toothpaste, toothbrushes, towels, socks, underwear, et cetera, for migrant children that are being released from detention and just put out there with no place to go, no resources. We did a concert and our goal was to raise $10,000 to get these backpacks and get them distributed. The response was so positive, it was so overwhelming. We made twice as much as we anticipated.

The concert artists said just came out because they believed in the cause. They were groups like Quetzal, Grammy Award-winning Chicano rock group that consider themselves artist-activists. Quetzal came out, Alice Bag who was the first Chicano punk rock artist. Aloe Blacc, who is a well known Grammy Award-winning artist. He just got signed on to a major label. I love his quote, he said when he got signed up to that label and saw how widespread his voice could be, he knew that he needed to use his voice for social change. These are the kind of artists that came out.

We had this wonderful Taiko group called TaikoProject. They're a Japanese American Taiko group. The only American Taiko group that won the Taiko contest in Tokyo, Japan. It was just a fabulous concert. We had a blessing by Native American sister at the beginning. It was just a real solidarity effort. The audience was made up of all different nationalities and just really, really into the program. There's another group I mentioned earlier, they started up north, they're called Tsuru for Solidarity.

Tsuru are these Japanese folded cranes and they're very symbolic. Based on a true story from the bombing of Hiroshima, Nagasaki. A young girl named Sadako had leukemia from the radiation poisoning. She really wanted to live and she had read a story where if you folded 1,000 paper cranes, that you would have a long life. She only made it to 738 but her whole village and the larger countryside knew what she was doing and finished the folding of the cranes for her. There's now a statue in her honor with the cranes and it's folding the Tsuru, the Japanese crane is a symbol of long life and resistance.

Tsuru for Solidarity, the group which organized the action at Fort Sills is planning a civil disobedience action in Washington DC. They're getting people from all over the United States to fold 125,000 paper cranes which stands for the 125,000 people that were imprisoned during World War II and we're all going to take it to Washington DC. Some of them have already decided that they're willing to go to jail. These are people my age or older. They have a network from all over the United States that will be going to Washington DC on June, I think it's 5th, 6th, and 7th.

It's basically to protest using camps and prisons that we were put into or anywhere in the United States for using as detention centers for migrants seeking asylum. As a Japanese American whose family went through the concentration camp experiences during World War II, we are really concerned because we see history repeating itself today with a lot of the current administration policies. As a community that was able to win redress and reparations with the help of other communities of color, we have a responsibility to continue that fight today and to continue to share that history and the lessons learned with our Latino brothers and sisters, with other Asian Americans, and with the community at large.

- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Ricardo Palavecino

Find more firsthand accounts of the campaign against Prop 187 here.

Miya Iwataki has a long history in activism for social justice, mainly in the Japanese, American and Asian Pacific Islander communities, but she says her proudest moment was the achievement of reparations and redress for the Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II.

"My parents and grandparents were in the concentration camps, and my father was part of the heroic 442nd segregated army unit of its size that won more medals of valor than any unit in the history of the United States,” she recounts.

But the experience was so painful that her parents and grandparents never talked about it to her generation.  Eventually, her family's experience became fuel for her activism.

In the 1970s, Iwataki worked at the Japanese American Community Center in Little Tokyo and then with the office of Congressman Mervyn Dymally, where she was deeply involved in the reparations fight.  Dymally, who was chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus “was a big supporter or our redress struggle,” she says.

At the time of Proposition 187, Iwataki was the director of the Los Angeles County Office of Diversity and Cultural Competency. As such, she was already working in immigrant rights and in contact with other organizations, like the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA).

She says that Proposition 187 galvanized the Asian Pacific Islander community, which was extremely diverse. But the organizing that happened at the time brought a lot of groups together.

“In the Asian community at that time were a lot of individual organizations. The Thai CDC, the Chinatown Service Center, United Cambodian Community, we all had our separate organizations. But this was an issue taking away social, human, health and educational services from our immigrants. And it really brought us together,” Iwataki says.

She was part of the formation of Asian Pacific Islanders Against Proposition 187, which had the participation of 60 different groups and organizations. It was formed as an arm of Californians Against Proposition 187, a state-wide group. She became the Southern California co-chair of the larger group.

Out of that experience came the formation of another group, API FIRE, Asian Pacific Islanders for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment.

Iwataki is also a poet, a writer and hosted/produced the East Wind Radio Series for KPFK Radio Pacifica.


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