WASHINGTON — The House, on the 200th birthday of the Constitution, today passed a measure apologizing to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II and offering them $1.2-billion compensation for their lost civil liberties.
The 243-141 vote on the Civil Liberties Act came after more than four hours of often emotional debate.
Sponsors of the bill included Reps. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento) and Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose), both of whom were held in internment camps as children.
"For me, it's a very emotional day," Mineta told reporters. "On the 29th of May, 1942, I was 10 1/2 years old, wearing my Cub Scout uniform as we were herded upon trains. . . . And here, on the 200th anniversary of our great Constitution, we have this legislation before us. . . . Where else could this happen in this world?"
Veto Is Possible
The Senate is expected to approve a similar measure next week--but the White House has said President Reagan's advisers will recommend he veto the bill in its present form.
The bill authorizes $1.2 billion for payments of $20,000 to people of Japanese ancestry who were relocated, confined, held in custody or otherwise deprived of liberty or property under the government's internment program.
An additional $50 million is earmarked for educational programs dealing with the wartime internment.
The measure also apologizes for the program, which a government commission recently concluded had been the result of "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership."
Convictions to Be Studied
And it directs federal agencies to review criminal convictions related to violations of the internment law as well as applications for restitution of positions, status or other losses attributable to discriminatory federal actions.
The House rejected, 237 to 162, an attempt by Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Long Beach) to delete the $1.2 billion set aside for reparations to individuals while retaining the apology and the education fund.
Lungren said supporters of the restitution provision harbored "the misguided notion that the dollar sign is the only sign of contrition" and demanded, "Have we come to the point in America where sincerity is judged only by a dollar sign?"
But others said that the money demonstrates a serious commitment by the government to make sure such internment is never repeated and that the outlay represents only a tiny fraction of the nation's trillion-dollar budget.
Rights Have a Value
"Some are saying these payments are inappropriate. Liberty is priceless. You cannot put a price on freedom," Mineta said on the floor. "But it's absurd to argue that because constitutional rights are priceless, they really have no value at all. When those rights are ripped away without due process, are you entitled to compensation? Absolutely."
The internment program stemmed from a 1942 order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that said the War Department could designate military areas from which people could be excluded.
Subsequent military orders resulted in the exclusion of all people of Japanese ancestry from California, Washington and Oregon. The orders applied to 77,000 U.S. citizens and 43,000 legal and illegal resident aliens. Most of them were moved by the Army to camps away from the West Coast and spent the rest of the war there.
Congress has awarded about $38 million in restitution payments since a 1948 Evacuation Claims Act was passed, but in 1983 a commission estimated that losses up to $2 billion had never been compensated.