A Utah senator is getting backlash for blocking the creation of a national historic site at a former internment camp in rural Colorado where Japanese Americans were held at the onset of World War II.

Republican Sen. Mike Lee’s lone objection to the Amache National Historic Site Act came just days before the 80th anniversary of the forced internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans, including many near Delta, Utah, during the war. Proponents of the bill hoped to get it passed in time for the Day of Remembrance on Feb. 19.

President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order on Feb. 19, 1942, expelling Japanese Americans living near the West Coast from their homes. They were held in 10 camps in California, Arizona, Wyoming, Utah, Arkansas and Colorado.

A rebuilt watchtower stands at Camp Amache, on Jan. 18, 2015, the site of a former World War II-era Japanese-American internment camp in Granada, Colo. On the eve of the 80th anniversary of the forced internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans at the onset of World war II, Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah is getting backlash for holding up the creation of a national historic site at the former internment camp in extreme southeast Colorado. | Russell Contreras, Associated Press

Lee is drawing fire from Japanese American organizations, conservation groups and others, including his GOP opponents in the Senate race who called his action on the issue embarrassing for Utahns.

The two-term senator did not attend a Senate floor session last week where Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., proposed passing the bill on unanimous consent. But the Utah senator asked Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to enter an objection on his behalf. It takes only one senator to block a bill up for unanimous consent.

“Due to the winter storms that are shutting down airports around the country, Sen. Lee … is not here, and I had the bad luck to be here when he communicated to me his desire that I make an objection on his behalf,” Cornyn said on the floor.

Cornyn, who described himself as “noncombatant on this issue,” said Lee wants to offer an amendment, participate in the discussion and vote on the bill.

“Sen. Lee does not object to this specific historical site. He does object to any increase in the total amount of land owned by the federal government as the federal government fails to adequately care for the land already in its vast holdings,” Lee’s spokesman, Lee Lonsberry, told The Associated Press.

The bill would establish the Amache National Historic Site in remote southeastern Colorado as a unit of the National Park system, making it eligible for additional preservation assistance. Bennet said it has “massive” bipartisan support.

According to the Japanese American Citizens League, Lee wants an amendment requiring an exchange of land for the historic site designation. Unfortunately, there is no federal land in that immediate area that could be exchanged for the designated land, the league posted on Facebook.

Lonsberry said Lee is in “active legislative negotiation regarding a minor alteration to the bill that would allow for this historic site to be managed by the federal government while ensuring federal land ownership does not increase.”

On Monday, Lee said on the Senate floor that some in the media “wrongly portrayed” him as being against wanting to commemorate the Colorado site. He said he opposes the expansion of federal land in the country. He said he would not stand in Colorado’s way but offered an amendment to the bill for a land swap.

Bennet rejected the amendment. He said the town of Granada, which owns the less than 1-square-mile site, wants to donate it to the federal government as a “patriotic contribution” for nothing in return. He said the bill wasn’t controversial in Colorado or in the House, where it passed 416-2.

In the end, the senators agreed to pass a version of the bill that includes the land will be donated to the federal government.

Though he supports the bill, Lee said “we’ve got to watch this because the more we enhance the federal land footprint, the more difficult it will be for the federal government to keep up with the maintenance backlog.”

The Senate passed the bill Monday night on unanimous consent. It now must go back to the House for a vote before heading to the president’s desk.

“I have waited many, many years to see the day where we can be certain that Amache, as a place of reflection, remembrance, honor, and healing, is protected for our current and future generations,“ Bob Fuchigami, an Amache survivor, said in a statement.

Earlier, Lee’s Senate challengers and others expressed outrage over his initially objecting to the legislation.

“This is an egregious miss on his part,” Republican candidate Becky Edwards said of Lee. Friends, she said, have reached out to her over the issue saying they are angry and hurt.

Edwards said Lee has embarrassed the people of Utah and “turned his back on Japanese Americans. ... I would like to see him present solutions, not obstructionism.”

“Considering this bill is being sponsored by folks from within Colorado, this is their land, I feel like, again, this is Mike posturing and at a very time when our country is grappling with racist attacks on our Asian community,” she said Monday.

Ally Isom, also a Republican candidate for Senate, said in social media posts that Lee prefers to be the “obstructionist, with his lone no vote “embarrassing Utahns and disrespecting Japanese Americans.”

“Lee’s pattern of being the lone obstructionist at any cost — whether it’s pushing against an internment camp memorial, the Violence Against Women Act, funding for ALS patients, or even Utah’s own public lands package — hurts Utah. His record shows he is out of touch and ineffective. He is again sending the wrong message at the wrong time,” Isom said in a statement Monday.

8 things you may not know about Japanese-American internment in Utah

In 2018, the Utah Legislature passed a resolution honoring the efforts of the Topaz Museum and Education Center in Delta to preserve the history of the area’s Japanese American internment camp.

More than 11,000 people were incarcerated at Topaz from Sept. 11, 1942, until Oct. 31, 1945. The site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2007 by the U.S. secretary of the interior.

The Japanese American Citizens League, its local Southern Colorado affiliate and other groups plan a Day of Remembrance on Feb. 19 that will, in part, demand passage of Bennet’s bill, according to the AP.

The initiative “not only serves as a healing tool and an acknowledgement of wrongdoing by our government, but it allows individuals and out country to move forward to a better way of being,” said Shirley Ann Higuchi, chairwoman of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation whose parents were interned at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in that state.

Higuchi told the AP that her father, William Higuchi, went on to become chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry at the University of Utah, and another detainee, Raymond Uno, became Utah’s first ethnic minority judge.

“A lot of Japanese Americans contributed so much to Utah, and it’s a shame that in some quiet way they cannot be honored,” Higuchi said. “They have quietly contributed to our country and it’s unfortunate they can’t be supported by someone from their own state.”

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