Born in Sacramento, California, Wayne M. Collins received his law degree from San Francisco Law School. Collins practiced law in San Francisco, and was especially dedicated to defending civil liberties. That interest led him to the forced removal and detention of Japanese Americans, and he was among the first to learn of the Justice Department's plan to deport from America the U.S. Japanese Americans who had, under the Denationalization Act (1944), renounced their citizenship. On July 14, 1945, President Harry Truman signed Proclamation Number 2655, which, under the Alien Enemy Act (1798), authorized the attorney general to remove from the United States interned “enemy aliens” considered to be “dangerous to the public peace and safety of the United States because they have adhered to … enemy governments …” (Collins, 110).
Determined to stop the government from “repatriating” those Japanese Americans because of the injustices of the concentration camps and loss of U.S. citizenship, Collins visited Japanese Americans held in Tule Lake, California, Bismarck, North Dakota, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Crystal City, Texas. He worked ceaselessly, admitting, “I was frightened stiff that if I was not able to be in my office every day early and late that the government might attempt to remove all of them to Japan” (Collins, 111). His devotion and energy buoyed the spirits of Japanese American renunciants (those who had filed to renounce their U.S. citizenship) and confirmed his fanaticism to government officials.
Collins was known for his work on the U.S. Supreme Court cases, Hirabayashi, Korematsu, and Endo. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) appointed Collins to represent Fred Korematsu in his test case of the mass “evacuation” in June 1942. Korematsu's trial began in September of that year in San Francisco before federal judge Martin Welsh, a member of the Native Sons of the Golden West, a racist organization with particular animus toward Asians and Japanese Americans.
Welsh chose to go on vacation, and Adolphus St. Sure replaced him. Korematsu impressed St. Sure with his demeanor and testimony. Still, the judge denied Collins's motion for acquittal, and found Korematsu guilty of violating the military's exclusion order and gave him a five-year probationary sentence.
When Collins asked to appeal the judge's decision, St. Sure set bail at $2,500, which the ACLU posted. Korematsu was free, but a military policeman in the courtroom grabbed Korematsu and insisted he had orders to take him back to Tanforan assembly center. “I was supposed to be free to go,” recalled Korematsu, “but the MP got all excited. He wasn't going to let me out on the street and he pulled a gun on me and said he's not going to let me go. The judge was all excited, he didn't know what to do” (Irons, 154). The judge offered to raise the bail, which the ACLU agreed to post. At that point, St. Sure relented to military authority, and allowed the MP to take Korematsu into custody. The episode pitted civilian against military authority, and exemplified the erosion of democracy under a regime of military necessity.
On February 19, 1943, on the anniversary of Executive Order 9066, Collins and Korematsu appeared in the court of appeals to file an appeal to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled on Korematsu on December 18, 1944, upholding his conviction by a six-to-three margin. When Collins took up the case of Japanese American renunciants, accordingly, both Japanese Americans and the government knew about him. In fact, in July 1944, St. Sure dispatched Collins to Tule Lake to resolve an issue involving the camp's stockade because of his reputation. While at the Tule Lake camp, Collins learned about Japanese American renunciation and the government's plan to send them to Japan. Collins was outraged, exclaiming, “That's ridiculous! You can no more resign citizenship in time of war than you can resign from the human race” (Collins, 113).
Japanese American parents were afraid their children would be sent to Japan, having lost their U.S. citizenship. Collins told them he believed the Denationalization Act was unconstitutional so he advised them to write to the U.S. attorney general and other government officials to explain that renunciation took place in an environment of duress and coercion. He wrote sample letters, and his advice and letter-writing campaign generated wide interest. Between August and September 1945, Tule Lake's renunciants organized to regain their citizenship. Especially after Japan's surrender on August 14, 1945, they sought legal representation to help them, but no attorney, except Collins, offered assistance.
The renunciants formed the Tule Lake Defense Committee, and in September 1945, the committee hired Collins as their sole attorney with the nominal support of the Northern California ACLU. Because each case had to be handled individually, Collins tried to slow down the government effort to deport the renunciants as a group. He began a letter-writing campaign among renunciants who requested the rescinding of their renunciation supported by letters from family and friends. On October 10, 1945, Tule Lake moved from the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to the Justice Department, which managed aliens and referred to Tule Lake's renunciants as “native American aliens.” Those would be “repatriated” to Japan, together with their families, whether citizens or aliens, who wanted to accompany them.
Collins sued to prevent the Justice Department from carrying out its plan. He filed suit on November 13, 1945, two days before the first ship was to sail from San Francisco. The suit asked that renunciants be set free, the deportation orders be rescinded, the renunciations be declared void, and the plaintiffs be considered U.S. citizens. Collins filed for habeas corpus and obtained a court order preventing the mass deportation but keeping the renunciants in government internment camps. To avoid the prospect of years of litigation and millions of dollars in legal fees, the Justice Department agreed on December 1945 to hold mitigation hearings for those who did not want to be deported to Japan, including renunciants and aliens.
The hearings were held between January 7 and April 1, 1946 for 3,161 in Tule Lake and 25 in Bismarck and Santa Fe who applied for a hearing of their cases. Only 107 renunciants at Tule Lake failed to ask for a hearing. The Justice Department disallowed attorneys or witnesses at the hearings, and after their completion, announced that 449 renunciants would be deported to Japan. Most of those to be departed appealed the ruling, and Collins and the Tule Lake Defense Committee urged another letter-writing campaign. The government closed Tule Lake on March 28, 1946, and shipped the camp's Japanese Americans to Crystal City, Texas, and Seabrook Farms, New Jersey. Some of those were released en route, and others gained their freedom upon reaching their destinations. Of the 3,186 total renunciants, 2,780 were released unconditionally. The United States succeeded in sending some 6,200 Japanese Americans from Tule Lake and Justice Department internment camps to Japan, and of that number about 1,800 to 2,000 were renunciants. Among the 4,406 shipped to Japan from Tule Lake were 1,767 U.S. citizens who had not renounced, including over a thousand children under 10 years old and another 679 teenagers who left with their parents. Those who succeeded in remaining in the United States were indebted, in large part, to the untiring efforts of Wayne M. Collins.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Collins, Donald E. Native American Aliens: Disloyalty and the Renunciation of Citizenship by Japanese Americans during World War II. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.
Irons, Peter. Justice at War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.