Lourdes Nicholls holds a small origami crane at the site marking the block of Manzanar where her family was detained.

Ancient Japanese legend has it that anyone who folds 1,000 origami cranes will be granted one special wish.

“When my daughter was born, I folded 1,000 cranes for her because I wanted her to live forever,” said Japanese American Lourdes Nicholls. 

Her daughter has since grown into a lovely young woman, but Nicholls continues to fold paper cranes and collects those made by others. The wish now? To end forced detention sites and inhumane immigration policies as part of the Tsuru for Solidarity project.

“Tsuru means crane in Japanese,” Nicholls explained.

The Tsuru Solidarity Project began in March of 2019 when a group of Japanese Americans, as well as Japanese-American World War II concentration camp survivors and descendants, gathered in Texas at Crystal City Internment Camp, where thousands of Japanese Americans were confined under Executive Order 9066 during World War II. 

About 40 miles east of the Crystal City camp site sits the South Texas Family Residential Center, the largest immigrant detention center in the United States.

“It’s happening again,” said Nicholls. “People are still being incarcerated.”

Issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt just two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942, Order 9066 required the removal of anyone who was 1/16th Japanese or more living on the West Coast. Roughly 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly displaced and detained in 10 internment camps, including Nicholls’ grandparents who were sent to the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California, where her grandfather, Kiyotsugu Tsuchiya, was asked to start a museum for the detainees. 

In Manzanar, on Feb. 26, 1945, Nicholls’ mother was born; she spent the first six months of her life in detention.

“She didn’t remember it,” said Nicholls. “It brought a lot of shame to my family. Even though my grandfather did things after WWII, it always kind of hung over them.”

Nicholls’ family is the subject of the documentary, “Belonging in the U.S.A: The Story of the Tsuchiya Family.” Its expected release date is Dec. 7 — a significant date in more ways than one. Dec. 7 is the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and her grandparents’ 85th wedding anniversary, as well as the 30th anniversary of her grandmother’s death.  

Her mother, Fumi Knox, endured that intergenerational trauma her entire life, according to Nicholls, who educates others about the Japanese internment camps by giving presentations at schools, libraries and on podcasts.

Also an advocate for ending practices that would force others to experience what her family went through as detainees, Nicholls joined Nikkei Uprising, a Chicago-based organization that partners with the Tsuru for Solidarity project.

“I got involved with them about a year and a half ago because when [President Donald] Trump was in office, we were going to march in Washington D.C. with 120,000 cranes to represent the 120,000 people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated,” she said.

The cranes were also used as a symbol of peaceful protest. Under the Trump Administration, immigrant families were being separated and held in detention centers. Children, many of whom were infants still nursing, were taken away from their mothers and fathers. 

“It was just so heartbreaking to see and hear the stories about children,” Nicholls recalls. 

The policy of separating immigrant families ended when President Joe Biden took office. Biden signed an executive order in February to reunite separated families, but the parents of 445 children still cannot be found, according to an April court filing by the U.S. Department of Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union.

So Nicholls and others have continued to collect and fold origami cranes. 

“The cranes I’m collecting are expressions of solidarity with the children, families and communities that are under attack and those who are being held in detention centers,” she said. 

The support Nicholls has received for her part in the Tsuru for Solidarity Project has been overwhelming. People have sent her cranes in the mail. Boxes of cranes have been left on her doorstep. 

Each individual crane has a special written message asking for the government to cease deportation of asylum seekers. The sets of 1,000 cranes are then strung together and photographed, before being sent to the White House. 

“The last thing to do is share your photo on May 5, which is Children’s Day in Japan,” said Nicholls.

While she knows her family’s experience is not the same as that of the families detained at the border, Nicholls feels they are kindred spirits.

“It hurts me,” she said. “I want to support and help them.”

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