KUNIA, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A bill before Congress would designate Honouliuli Internment Camp on Oahu a national historic site, giving it greater protections — and funding.
The site held hundreds of internees and thousands of prisoners of war throughout its use during World War II.
And in 2015, President Barack Obama established the site as a national monument.
"What happens is that monuments have to always struggle for independent funding sources," said U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who introduced the measure aimed at giving Honouliuli the new designation.
2018 marks the 75th anniversary of the opening of Honouliuli.
Because the new designation would be an act of Congress, the site would be entitled to funding, Hanabusa said.
That would open up opportunities for things like preservation efforts.
It would also help fund more archaeological research.
The ruins of the World War II-era internment camp already serve as a classroom for about a dozen archaeology students. University of Hawaii-West Oahu use the site for a "field school," allowing students to uncover the site's history.
"I think that anytime you can get the students involved in research, it's really interesting," said William Belcher, assistant professor of archaeology.
Belcher admits that some may think his group's work looks uninteresting from the surface.
"But we're uncovering something that somebody hasn't seen for over 70 years. And so, when people see that and feel that, they can tangibly touch history," he said.
Students and staff at the site agree their work is important for remembering the internment of the Japanese and Japanese-Americans, a feeling Hanabusa worries has been lost with the current White House administration.
"In the 2019 budget proposal President Trump zeroed out not just Honouliuli, he zeroed out everything that had to do with the internment. It's almost like wiping out a memory of what happened," she said.
"We say it's one of the darkest moments and it is because we remember they were citizens that were put into internment camps without due process or anything simply because of their race."
During a March hearing, Hananusa questioned U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke about her concerns, an exchange which made headlines after Zinke addressed Hanabusa by beginning with "konnichiwa," – the Japanese greeting typically used during mid-day.
"I think the significance of what he said and the reaction that people have had is exactly the reason why they felt they could place Japanese-Americans in to internment camps," she said.
"That's what is really unfortunate about the whole situation, and the insensitivity to it, is that for some reason Japanese-Americans are being told that no matter what, you are not going to fit in, you are still distinctly different and you're not American."
One of the main reasons the bill is so important to Hanabusa is because her two grandfathers were both held in internment camps during World War II, one being at Honouliuli.
"There's a lot of work that needs to be done at Honouliuli to preserve it and to, more important than that, to ensure that people understand what happened so that we never repeat that mistake again," Hanabusa said.
The public is not currently able to visit the site, but officials are in the planning stages of designing a memorial for the public.
It is not known when it will be open. The National Park Service says the monument will tell the history of internment, martial law, and the experience of prisoners of war in Hawaii during World War II.