Arkansas site being considered for immigrant housing has dark history nearby

DESHA COUNTY, Ark. -- Hundreds of immigrant children are still separated from their parents at the United States border.

The federal government’s looking at different places to temporarily house them across the country, including a spot in Arkansas about two-and-a-half hours from Memphis.

Tucked away in Desha County, Arkansas, a memorial stands for what was once a Japanese internment camp.

It was built after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and beginning of World War Two.

Richard Yada’s parents were two of the 8,000-plus people taken from California and put there in the 1940s.

“You kind of get a little, not nostalgia, but a little eerie feeling that that’s where they were," he said.

During their three years at the camp, Yada was born. He says his parents rarely talked about their experience.

“Probably why they didn’t talk about it, they felt like, they were put in basically a prison. They felt like they did something wrong and a lot of them lost a lot of self-esteem by being there and in those conditions.”

Yada’s family helped keep the memorial up and he still regularly visits the Rohwer Relocation Center.

“The reason for the museum was to keep the story alive, so something like that would never happen again," said Yada.

But U.S. government officials visited the area in June.

They’re considering using the land nearby to temporarily house migrant children separated from their families.

“Did we learn nothing from the history we had before?” said Arkansas State Rep. Mark McElroy.

McElroy knows the area well. He used to work on the site when it was a fish-testing facility in the 1970s and still lives up the road.

He was one of the people called about it being evaluated for emergency shelters.

“I was just stunned. I was thinking, ‘This can’t be happening again.’”

He says the land being considered is right next to the old internment camp, with a piece of it overlapping.

“Let’s not lock up people because they don’t look like us and especially let’s not lock up children.”

McElroy said it’d be terrible living conditions for tents.

“I don’t know if the president’s ever been to Southeast Arkansas in the middle of summer, but the humidity levels here and the mosquitoes are horrible – they’ll fly off with you.”

It’d also be expensive.

They’d have to build a new sewer, water and electrical system, along with the buildings, gravel and transportation. It could rack up millions of dollars.

“Whether you like it or not and whether it’s the right thing or not, to build it right there is not a good idea," said Yada.

Those in favor of the housing say it’d bring new jobs to the area and the buildings could have future use.

But the history that comes with this county, makes many people hope the government goes a different direction.

“So much suffering went on. So many people were separated from their belongings and their families," said McElroy. “I know we have trouble with illegal immigration, but this approach we’re taking is like doing brain surgery with a chainsaw.”

There was also a site being looked at in Little Rock.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services says if a decision is made to use the property, lawmakers will be notified before doing so.

Governor Asa Hutchinson has said he’s against the use of any Arkansas facility that would be for children separated from their parents.