Roanoke, VA Mayor: WWII Japanese Internment Camps Justify Rejecting Syrian Refugees
Roanoke, Virginia Mayor David Bowers has raised eyebrows and ire by citing the internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II as justification for rejecting Syrian refugees.
In a statement requesting that all local government and nongovernment agencies “suspend and delay any further Syrian refugee assistance” until “normalcy is restored,” Bowers, a Democrat, wrote:
I’m reminded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from Isis now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.
Around 120,000 people of Japanese origin or ancestry—more than 60 percent of them American citizens—were rounded up and forcibly relocated from their homes in the Western United States to remote concentration camps from 1942 through 1946.
“A Jap’s a Jap,” Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, who headed the internment program, explained at the time, ignoring the fact that some 20,000 Japanese Americans served courageously in the US military during World War II. “I don’t want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty… It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty… But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.”
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which included a formal apology for Japanese internment and the authorization of $20,000 compensation payments to surviving victims.
Bowers’ statement drew harsh rebukes from around the nation, not least from Japanese Americans.
“My family and I spent 4 years in prison camps because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor,” actor George Takei, best known for his role as Hikaru Sulu on the television series “Star Trek,” wrote in a Facebook post. “It is my life’s mission to never let such a thing happen again in America.”
Takei refuted the assertion, often made by conservatives and Islamophobes, that Syrian refugees are a national security threat.
“There never was any proven incident of espionage or sabotage from the suspected ‘enemies’ then, just as there has been no act of terrorism from any of the 1,854 Syrian refugees the US already has accepted,” he wrote. “We were judged based on who we looked like, and that is about as un-American as it gets.”
Indeed, of the more than 745,000 refugees resettled in the United States after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, only two—both of them Iraqis—have been arrested on terrorism-related charges, and their alleged crime of aiding al Qaeda occurred in Iraq, not the United States.
The Roanoke Times reports Bowers’ colleagues on the Roanoke City Council convened a press conference on Wednesday evening to jointly condemn Bowers’ statement and “neutralize the damage” the mayor has caused.
Councilman Court Rosen, who did not attend the conference, emailed Bowers, calling his statement “incredibly xenophobic, discriminatory, and downright wrong.” Rosen, who is Jewish, cited the shiploads of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe before and during World War II. “You are on the wrong side of history on this,” he wrote.
John Whitbeck, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, slammed Bowers’ statement as “offensive and ignorant.”
“A pause in accepting refugees is prudence,” Whitbeck said. “It balances our nation’s security with the compassion for which America has always been known. Internment was a gross historical injustice. There is no comparison.”
Bowers appeared undaunted, doubling down on his statement on Wednesday.
“I understand how difficult a decision [Roosevelt] made, but in the light of what was going on at the time he made the right decision,” the mayor told the Roanoke Times. “And I think the right decision now is not to have Syrian refugees here, now.”