The mayor of Roanoke, Va., has apologized after a barrage of criticism for suggesting that the U.S. should treat Syrian refugees the same way it treated Japanese Americans during World War II.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, several governors have told President Obama that their states will not accept refugees from Syria because some of them could be terrorists in disguise. Mayor David Bowers, a Democrat, added his voice to the debate on Wednesday with a statement on city stationery that read, in part:
“… Since the recent terrorist bombing of the Russian airliner, the attacks in Paris and now with the murderous threats to our nation’s capital, I am convinced that it is presently imprudent to assist in the relocation of Syrian refugees to our part of Virginia.
“Thus, today, I’m requesting that all Roanoke Valley governments and non-governmental agencies suspend and delay any further Syrian refugee assistance until these serious hostilities and atrocities end, at the very least until regarded as under control by U.S. authorities, and normalcy is restored.
“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 is now just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.
“I further want to assure our citizens that … everything is and will be done to protect Roanokers from harm and danger from this present scourge upon the earth. In this regard, at least for a while into the future, it seems to be better safe than sorry.”
The Roanoke Times reported that Bowers issued a new statement, which stopped short of an apology, on Thursday: “I was thinking of the families of the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the threats to our nation’s capital city when I made that statement yesterday. My statement was intended to be respectful, measured and moderate in tone and substance. People here in Roanoke know that’s the way I try to handle things.
“I did not intend to offend anyone, but I did want to express my concerns about the current situation involving the safety of the American people.”
But in a meeting with the City Council on Friday, Bowers publicly apologized to Japanese Americans and said he did not expect his remarks to go viral, according to The Daily Beast.
WDBK7 quoted him as saying, “It’s just not in my heart to be racist or bigoted. I apologize to all those offended by my remarks. No one else is to blame but me.”
City Council’s Response
On Wednesday, five members of the Roanoke City Council called a press conference to repudiate Bowers’ remarks, according to WSET, the local ABC affiliate.
“To compare this situation as if that was a good decision just shows how little he knows about history,” Councilmember Ray Ferris said.
“We were stunned. I was stunned when I first saw the statement,” said Councilmember Sherman Lea. “I think it was inappropriate, badly written. The things that he said didn’t have to be said. It was hurtful.”
Vice Mayor David Trinkle commented, “Unfortunately, what happened today was a childish, juvenile way to try to bring a tragedy and world attention to somebody and to our city.”
Sam Rasoul, a Democratic member of the Virginia House of Delegates, said in a statement, “As the son of immigrants who are proud to call Roanoke home, I was shocked to see the mayor’s justification of his call to disallow Syrian refugees to Roanoke. The Japanese internment camps of World War II symbolize a dark time and low point in U.S. history. We should learn a lesson from such events rather than repeat them.”
BuzzFeed reported that Bowers has lost his spot on the Virginia Leadership Council for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as a result of his remarks.
“The internment of people of Japanese descent is a dark cloud on our nation’s history and to suggest that it is anything but a horrible moment in our past is outrageous,” said Josh Schwerin, a Clinton campaign spokesman.
ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastanaga said the internment was “a dark stain on America’s history that Mayor Bowers should learn from rather than seek to emulate.”
Virginia Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Swecker called the mayor’s comments “absolutely wrong.”
An anti-Bowers Facebook page, “Mayor Bowers Must Resign” — which states that Bowers “embarrassed the city of Roanoke with an unauthorized statement praising the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II” — has been established, along with a Change.org petition.
A pro-Bowers Facebook page, “We Support Mayor Bowers 100%,” applauds the mayor “for putting the safety of the people of Roanoke Valley first.”
Following are statements issued by Japanese American leaders and others familiar with the community’s history.
Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside): “During World War II, my parents were imprisoned in internment camps for no crime but being Japanese American. The notion that the internment was in any way admirable is repulsive and wrong. The internment was un-American. So is refusing to offer a helping hand to victims of war when we have policies in place to keep our nation safe.”
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Pasadena), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus: “I absolutely condemn this comparison. Japanese internment was a dark chapter in American history — so un-American we later apologized for it. It is outrageous to let the same kind of xenophobia influence our policy today. If we do, we will only regret it again. We must stick to our values and not emulate the mistakes of the past.”
Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento): “Our first responsibility is to provide for the safety of our constituents. We know that there is much fear after the heinous attacks on the people of France. Fear can be understood, but fear-mongering has no place in the determination to make us safe. It only adds to more fear.
“I say this because of the outrageous remarks by the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, David A. Bowers, who pointed to the internment of Japanese Americans as a model for guarding against current international threats.
“During World War II, the decision to unjustly place U.S. citizens of Japanese descent into camps was grounded in fear. I was reassured when, in 1988 President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act to formally apologize to Japanese Americans who were victims of internment camps. In this time of uncertainty, I would hate to see us return to these fear-based reactionary practices that threatened the liberty of U.S. citizens.
“This kind of talk by Mr. Bowers is not the answer. As vulnerable families pursue asylum from the terror being waged in Syria and Iraq, I hope we will remain a model for the world. I want future generations to look back at this time and see that we stood for American values and helped those in need.
“I know that we can keep our country safe while also staying true to who we are as Americans. We all need to demonstrate compassion, not fear, as we face the challenges before us.”
Rep. Mike Honda (D-Santa Clara), CAPAC chair emeritus: “I was raised in an internment camp and know first-hand how that dark moment in our nation’s history led to repercussions that have resonated over the years. I am outraged by reports of elected officials calling for Syrian Americans to be rounded up and interned.
“We simply cannot let the extremist perpetrators of these hateful acts of violence drive us into such a misguided action. For it is when we allow these criminals to lead us down a dark path, away from our principles and ideals, that we as a country suffer.
“The Japanese and Japanese Americans interned after the bombing of Pearl Harbor was an outrage, as was turning away Jews at our borders who were fleeing German persecution. We cannot allow this to happen again and reverse the progress we have made in the last several decades.
“We look back, as a nation, and we know this was wrong. We look back and know, as defined by the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, that the internment was a result of ‘race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.’ We look back and know that an entire ethnicity was said to be, and ultimately considered, the enemy. We know that internment happened because few in Washington were brave enough to say ‘no.’
“We must now stand up and say ‘no’ to failed leadership and condemn the statements of Mayor Bowers of Roanoke, Tennessee state House GOP Caucus Chair (Glen) Casada, and Rhode Island State Sen. Elaine Morgan, who would make such ill-advised and backwards-thinking recommendations. They are perpetuating the messages of hate and fear that fly in the fact of what America stands for in the world.
“As we learn more about the complexity and the extent of the attacks on Paris, this tragedy continues to send shock waves through the world community. I am hopeful we will not allow our anger and outrage towards these terrorists and their cowardly attacks on civilians to turn us away from compassion and generosity.
“We need to find ways to help the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who are entering through our thorough screening and resettlement process now to find safe haven in the United States. As a world leader, we need to help these people escape from the brutal ISIL regime – they are fleeing the very perpetrators of these senseless acts of violence.”
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii): “The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II remains a civil rights atrocity — one that our country has apologized for and vowed not to repeat. Comments such as that by Mayor David Bower of Roanoke that use this dark period of our nation’s history to justify actions against Syrian refugees are unacceptable and appalling.
“These are difficult times, and our top priority must be to keep our communities safe. Still, it is clear that while World War II ended 70 years ago, the stories of the nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans forced into internment camps still speak to the importance of upholding basic civil rights.
“President Obama announced this week Japanese American civil rights leader Minoru Yasui will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Min Yasui challenged the legality of the internment camps and committed his life to fighting for civil rights. He represents the best of America. We would do well to remember his example. Let us take up his torch and show that we will not bow to fear, but rather, protect both national security and the basic rights of all.”
Actor and activist George Takei: “Mayor Bowers, there are a few key points of history you seem to have missed:
“1) The internment (not a ‘sequester’) was not of Japanese ‘foreign nationals,’ but of Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens. I was one of them, and my family and I spent four years in prison camps because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. It is my life’s mission to never let such a thing happen again in America.
“2) 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 U.S. already has accepted. We were judged based on who we looked like, and that is about as un-American as it gets.
“3) If you are attempting to compare the actual threat of harm from the 120,000 of us who were interned then to the Syrian situation now, the simple answer is this: There was no threat. We loved America. We were decent, honest, hard-working folks. Tens of thousands of lives were ruined, over nothing.
“Mayor Bowers, one of the reasons I am telling our story on Broadway eight times a week in ‘Allegiance’ is because of people like you. You who hold a position of authority and power, but you demonstrably have failed to learn the most basic of American civics or history lessons. So, Mayor Bowers, I am officially inviting you to come see our show, as my personal guest. Perhaps you, too, will come away with more compassion and understanding.”
JACL Executive Director Priscilla Ouchida: “A lesson to be drawn from the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans is the fundamental necessity to defend our country’s values and ideals during times of crisis, even when our nation is threatened. Despite calls to the contrary where numerous state governors and other officials wish to close their borders to Syrian refugees, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) supports the president’s program, which would allow for the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States.
“In 1942, all Japanese Americans were deemed to be a security threat, which led to their forced removal from their homes followed by their incarceration in camps in America’s interior. The banishing of Japanese Americans from the West Coast caused virtually all the western governors to issue statements proclaiming that Japanese weren’t welcomed in their states except within the confinement of a concentration camp. Today, we praise the lone governor, Ralph Carr from Colorado, who exhibited courage in the face of fear-mongering by welcoming Japanese Americans to his state.
“In 1983, a federal commission tasked with investigating the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans released its findings. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians found that the incarceration was caused by race prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership. It’s important to recognize and name that which may cause us to betray our values and ideals.
“The United States has always been a sanctuary of freedom and opportunity for immigrants fleeing oppression and seeking a better life. Today, in the face of threats to our national security, the United States must lead with its values and ideals. We must not succumb to impulses motivated by fear. JACL unambiguously supports a program that allows for the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States.”
Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey: “Mayor Bowers may be just one of many who are using the despicable terrorist acts in Paris for political gain, but his outrageous statement exposes the dangers of unbridled xenophobia, racism and racial profiling during times of crisis. How anyone, much less a public official, can cite the World War II incarceration of the Japanese American community as rationale for any policy in this day and age is simply outrageous.
“Apparently, Mayor Bowers never bothered to learn that President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 was repealed by President Gerald Ford, that the United States Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 to redress the fundamental unconstitutional nature of the forced removal, and that Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush apologized to those incarcerated without charges, without due process, simply because they looked like the enemy.
“While it took decades of struggle, congressional hearings, and intense lobbying by many to win the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, there are some in our country who fail to understand the illegal and unconstitutional nature of Executive Order 9066. The text of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 cites racism, wartime hysteria, and the failure of political leadership as the driving forces behind the incarceration of the Japanese American community. Unfortunately, these words can easily describe what is going on today.
“Xenophobia, racism, and fear are standard tools for many political opportunists. What is particularly shameful is how many are willing to turn their backs on those in need, those fleeing the horrors of war, and the brutality of ISIS. Turning our backs on the refugees is contrary to our nation’s values.
“This is precisely the time when, we, as a democratic nation, must reaffirm our commitment to the fundamental tenants of our Constitution. We must reaffirm our commitment to human rights and oppose the persecution of anyone on the basis of race, religion, and national origin. We must do our part to assist those fleeing tyranny and persecution. This is our moral responsibility and will be a important step in combating the fear and hysteria being whipped up by political opportunists like Mayor Bowers.
“As a people, we must stand united with all who oppose terrorism. But perhaps most important, we must lead by example and show the world how strong and resilient our democratic traditions are. To bow down to fear and hatred will only fuel the terrorist narrative that our democracy, our progressive traditions, are nothing more than a facade.
“The description of Muslims and refugees as potential terrorists, fifth columnists, or a threat to our way of life, is reminiscent of what our families faced behind the barbed wire during World War II. To fall prey to that same kind of hysteria, which now targets the Muslim community, would be a disservice to the sacrifices of our families, our community, and it is a slap in the face to all freedom loving people around the world.”
Florin JACL (Sacramento): “The Japanese American community is outraged and appealed by the Nov. 18 statement from Roanoke, Va. Mayor David Bowers that justifies the exclusion of innocent Syrian refugees fleeing terrorism by the World War II imprisonment of Japanese Americans in American concentration camps…
“In 1988, President Ronald Reagan apologized to the surviving Japanese Americans and paid them token reparations of $20,000 over a 10-year period. The federal commission studying the World War II camps said they were the result of ‘prejudice, war hysteria, and the failure of political leadership.’ No Japanese Americans committed espionage or sabotage during the war.
“Japanese Americans and others are fearful that our country is making the same mistake, this time targeting innocent Syrians fleeing terrorism and seeking a safer life. The ‘prejudice, war hysteria, and failure of political leadership’ are being repeated.”
Eric Muller, distinguished professor of law in jurisprudence and ethics at University of North Carolina Law School and author of “Free to Die for Their Country: The Story of Japanese American Draft Resisters of World War II,” “American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II,” and “Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II.”: “This sort of thing — a favorable invocation of Japanese American internment to support current policy — makes my heart so very heavy. Let me break this down for you, Mr. Mayor of Roanoke.
“There were two kinds of ‘sequestration’ (the mayor’s word) of ‘Japanese nationals’ (the mayor’s words) after Pearl Harbor.
“(1) Relatively small numbers of Japanese resident alien men were arrested as ‘enemy aliens’ by the FBI after Pearl Harbor and detained in Justice Department internment camps. These arrests had the veneer of legality in that they were based on some piece of evidence that signaled danger in the eyes of the government and were effected pursuant to statutory authority stretching back to the 18th century.
“BUT: the ‘evidence’ of danger included such nefarious things as teaching judo, heading a Japanese business association, or being the bookkeeper for a Japanese after-school program.
“Mr. Mayor, I don’t think you want to hang your hat on these arrests, given that their purported foundation did nothing more than reflect the irrational and xenophobic fear that gripped the nation at the time.
“Oh, and U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle repudiated the entire arrest program in 1943.
“(2) In a separate program, large numbers of Japanese resident aliens (some 40,000) were evicted from their homes and locked up in prison camps en masse, without any evidence of dangerousness at all. The only criterion was that they were Japanese. That lockup lasted for several years.
“Mr. Mayor, I don’t think you want to hang your hat on these detentions either, given that Congress determined in the early 1980s that they were based on racism and hysteria rather than valid security concerns. The government issued survivors a token redress payment of $20,000 per person. So … probably not the sort of precedent you want to invoke.
“(3) I don’t want to omit the possibility that by lining yourself up behind the ‘sequestration’ of ‘Japanese nationals,’ you are referring to the mass detention not of Japanese resident aliens but of some 75,000 U.S. CITIZENS of Japanese ancestry without evidence from ’42 to ’45.
“If that’s the precedent you’re invoking, well, you’re just being a complete idiot.”