Crystal City (detention facility)

US Gov Name Crystal City Internment Center
Facility Type Department of Justice Internment Camp
Administrative Agency U.S. Department of Justice
Location Crystal City, Texas (28.6667 lat, -99.8167 lng)
Date Opened November 2, 1942
Date Closed January 1948
Population Description Held people of Japanese ancestry from the U.S. and Latin America and their families; also held German and Italian nationals and their families.
General Description Located in Zavala County in South Texas, 170 miles west of Corpus Christi. Semiarid grasslands with an average annual rainfall of about 21 inches. Summers are hot and humid, with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees.
Peak Population 4,000
National Park Service Info

During World War II, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) leased from the United States Farm Security Administration over 200 acres of land to create an internment camp for "enemy aliens" at Crystal City, located approximately 110 miles southwest of San Antonio, Texas. The INS operated the internment camp from 1942 until 1948, holding as many as 4,000 internees, many of whom had been deported from Latin America to the United States. Unlike other INS camps, Crystal City accommodated families that had been separated during the war. INS officials referred to it as the "family internment camp" and boasted about its distinctive features, such as a makeshift "swimming pool." Yet life within the camp was restricted in many respects, including mail censorship, and the INS never ceased to forget that it was the keeper of allegedly "dangerous enemy aliens."

Background and Establishment

Before World War II, Crystal City had been the site of a migrant labor facility. Located in Zavala County just 50 miles from the Mexican border, the city's population grew significantly during the 1920s, when migrant laborers helped fuel a boom in farming. [1] The climate was generally dry with little rainfall. From October through April, the temperature averaged 65 degrees Fahrenheit. From June through August, temperatures reached as high as 114 degrees. The INS, which leased the facility from the Farm Security Administration, acknowledged that the summer heat was "excessive" but insisted that nights were "usually cool" due to the "prevailing winds from the Gulf of Mexico." [2]

During World War II, the INS turned the migrant labor facility into an internment camp for "enemy aliens" in order, it claimed, to reunite "enemy aliens" with their families. The first internee group of 35 German non-citizens and their families arrived on December 12, 1942. The first Nikkei women and their children arrived from the Seagoville internment camp in March 1943, though Issei fathers did not join their families until June. [3] The INS expanded the site's original buildings, constructed out of cement and pine wood, and added additional dwelling units to accommodate as many as 4,000 persons. [4] The camp primarily interned Japanese and Germans, many of whom had been deported from Latin America to the United States, but the camp also interned some Japanese Americans who had transferred to the internment camp from War Relocation Authority centers. By August 1944, the camp held 2,104 persons of Japanese descent, nearly half from Latin America, and 804 persons of German descent. [5]

The camp's demographics and living arrangements continually changed as the INS admitted and discharged internees. Camp administrators adapted by generating a list of household goods and furnishings to meet the requirements of families ranging in size from two to ten. The list included items such as cooking utensils, dishes, chairs, iceboxes, bedding, curtains, and partitions. Indeed, the internment of families with children ranging in age from infants to young adults created unique challenges. Furthermore, the racial and ethnic diversity of the camp contributed to disagreements between Japanese and Germans over living space and territorial boundaries. [6]

Life at Crystal City

All internees lived within the same 100 acre fenced compound, subject to the authority of camp administrators. The "Officer in Charge" decided all matters of policy and public relations but delegated administrative responsibilities to various divisions. The Maintenance Division, for example, repaired buildings and utilities while the Surveillance Division regulated all entries and departures. The INS installed flood lights every sixty feet and "observation towers" at each corner, where armed guards stood watch from atop. Guards on horse-back toured the area just outside the fence while "lookout" guards, stationed on roads, communicated with camp administrators by radio.

Within the fenced compound, the INS granted internees a considerable degree of freedom. In part to demonstrate to outside observers that it adhered to international laws and protocols, the INS divided internee activities into three categories. The first concerned continuing education such as "hobby shops" for men and "home economics"—cooking, sewing, flower arrangement, and rug weaving—for women. The camp also offered courses in agriculture, accounting, and English, German, Japanese, Spanish, and French language. The second category concerned maintenance work, for which the INS paid internees 10 cents an hour. These activities included laundry, carpentry, shoe repair, garbage collection, and ice and milk delivery. The third category concerned communal recreation such as board games, boys and girls scouts, and athletics like soccer, tennis, ping pong, wrestling, and baseball. [7]

The INS furnished internees with "camp money" and "ration points" that they could use to purchase items from the canteen. Although the camp's Supply Division procured and distributed outside supplies, materials, and equipment, the camp also produced goods from within, utilizing the manpower of its captive population. Camp administrators had the Japanese pick weeds and vegetables because they were "excellent gardeners" and knew "how to preserve and keep food." The Japanese bought seeds and fertilizer from the canteen and cultivated small gardens where they grew leafy greens, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, beets, and radishes. Meanwhile, the INS noted, "the Germans are like the American farmers," they like to harvest and "work with tractors and tools." [8]

At times, the INS relied on internees to manufacture the goods that it could not obtain because of wartime shortages. After May 1943, for example, internees engaged in a "sewing project" that yielded more than 20,000 articles of clothing and other linens, including shirts, blouses, pants, suits, dresses, coats, shower curtains, mattress covers, sheets, and pillow cases. The internees also produced uniforms for nurse's aides, aprons for assistants in the hospital clinic, and sanitary face masks. "Expert Japanese tailors," the INS reported, altered fabrics issued by the Supply Division to fit individual needs. [9]

The Education Division oversaw the recreational and school programs at the camp, which included the "American school system" and the "German and Japanese school systems." The INS reported that internees constructed a swimming pool that held 1,250,000 gallons of water. It promoted the pool as an example to outsiders that the facility was especially child-friendly. In truth, however, the camp was hardly an ideal place for children. The U.S. government assumed responsibility for providing a primary and secondary school education in accordance with the Texas state curriculum but provided little or no funds for textbooks and teachers. Thus, while the children of internees could reasonably expect to keep up with their grade-level peers, they lacked the resources necessary to succeed. [10]

After the War

At the end of the war, Crystal City was the largest internment camp to hold internees. By the end of 1945, the camp held 3,374 internees, out of which 2,371 were of Japanese descent, 997 were of German descent, and 6 were of Italian descent. President Harry Truman issued a Presidential Proclamation in September that authorized the removal from the Western Hemisphere of enemy aliens "who are within the territory of the United States without admission under the immigration laws." As a result, most internees were forced to "repatriate" to Japan and Germany. Wayne M. Collins , an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union , however, managed to obtain a court stay for several hundred Japanese Latin Americans .

As a result of legal action, the Justice Department granted some internees "parole," which meant that they were released as undocumented "immigrants." Wayne Collins arranged for the former internees to work at Seabrook Farms , a truck farming plant in New Jersey. Due to the pending case, the Crystal City internment camp was the last camp to close on February 27, 1948. [11]

Although little remains of the internment camp—it was replaced by three schools, athletic fields, a small airport, city social service buildings, and a low-income housing project—a large engraved granite block serves as a monument to and reminder of what happened during World War II. [12]

Authored by Stephen Mak , The Dalton School

For More Information

"Activities at the Crystal City, TX, Internment Camp, 1942-43." Audio-visual. Record Group 85, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C.

"Alien Enemy Detention Facility: Crystal City, Texas." Produced by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. 20 min. 1943.,_Crystal_City,_Texas&gsearch=alien .

Kashima, Tetsuden. Judgment without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment during World War II . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.

Mak, Stephen. "America's Other Internment: World War II and the Making of Modern Human Rights." Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 2009.

Riley, Karen L. Schools Behind Barbed Wire: The Untold Story of Wartime Internment and the Children of Arrested Enemy Aliens . Lanham, MD: Rowen & Littlefield, 2001.


  1. Marc Rodriguez, The Tejano Diaspora: Mexican Americanism and Ethnic Politics in Texas and Wisconsin (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 16-17.
  2. N.D. Collaer, "Information Concerning (a) the Crystal City Internment Camp and (b) the Type of Articles, Furnishings, Etc., which may be brought to said camp at Government Expense," c. April 1943, File 104/025, E-276, RG85, National Archives I, Washington, D.C.
  3. Tetsuden Kashima, Judgment without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment during World War II (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), 120
  4. "History - General Physical Layout - Construction Problems - Maintenance," [n.d.], File 104/025, E-276, RG85, National Archives I, Washington, D.C.
  5. Kashima, Judgment without Trial , 118.
  6. "History—General Physical Layout—Construction Problems—Maintenance," [n.d.], File 104/025, E-276, RG85, National Archives I, Washington, D.C.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Kashima, 120-121.
  12. Jeff Burton et. al., Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites , accessed 29 August 2012, .

Last updated Dec. 19, 2023, 4:05 a.m..