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Tuesday, February 19, 2013


The Alien Enemies Act of 1798 provided the legal justification for controlling many Americans, and visiting foreign nationals, even 150 years after its creation.

The term “enemy alien” refers to any person, male or female, who is 14 years of age or older living within the United States but not naturalized, and who is, by default, a citizen of any foreign nation with which the United States is at war. These people are “liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured, and removed as enemy aliens.” Also considered enemy aliens are foreign merchants transacting business in the U.S., international students studying here, and merchant seamen stranded in U.S. ports because their ships are impounded if war broke out.

During the WWII there were about 1,100,000 people labeled as “enemy aliens” in the United States. The Japanese totaled 92,000, the Germans 315,000, and the Italians 695,000. All were required to register with the government, be fingerprinted and photographed, and were required to carry their “enemy alien registration cards” at all times.

This 1798 act, along with the War Relocation Authority was used to remove and detain tens of thousands of Japanese during WWII. Their story is well known today. But other groups of foreign origin were also affected, principally Germans and Italians. No one would have had a problem with removing diplomats or other representatives of enemy nations, of course, but many Americans were caught up in this legal net simply because their naturalization process to become American citizens had not been completed.

In 1939, Britain and France declared war against Germany. In a show of support, President Roosevelt authorized the FBI to compile a list of all those to be arrested in case of national emergency.

The Germans

In the United States by 1940 there were 1.2 million persons residing who had been born in Germany, another 5 million with both parents born in Germany, and another 6 million with one parent born in Germany. The political and economic influence of this major sub-group precluded any mass effort to relocate or intern them. But a total of 11,507 German “enemy aliens” were interred during the war.

But many Germans, and German-American citizens, were detained temporarily then evicted from coastal areas on an individual basis by the War Relocation Authority, who also was responsible for the relocation of Japanese Americans. 

Another 4,500 ethnic Germans, who were living legally in Latin American countries, were brought to the U.S. and interred at the insistence of our government. American intelligence paid financial rewards to all Latin countries expelling these people. They were interred at camps in Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, North Dakota, and Tennessee and some were held until 1948, years after the end of the war. Five countries refused to participate in the action, including Mexico.

The Italians

By 1940, there were millions of native born Italian-American citizens of the United States who were not affected by the Alien Enemy Act. But astoundingly, there were more than 600,000 who had immigrated in previous years who had not become naturalized citizens. The label “enemy aliens” did not distinguished between ideologies; pro-Fascists and anti-Fascists were legally the same.

The War Relocation Authority (the agency that supervised the relocation of Japanese-Americans into camps) evacuated and interred Italian-Americans, without regard to citizenship, from areas designated important for national security. These were primarily along the seacoasts. With Italy’s surrender in September of 1943, most Italian internees were released.

National security was a legitimate concern during the 1940’s. But was the government over zealous in its action at the expense of individual freedoms? And, does this situation exist in American today? 

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