Mayor Justifies Turning Away Syrian Refugees By Citing Japanese American Incarceration

Mayor David Bowers of Roanoke, VA. (Photo credit: Ryan Stone / Washington Post)
Mayor David Bowers of Roanoke, VA. (Photo credit: Ryan Stone / Washington Post)

(H/T: Snoopy)

Roanoke mayor David A. Bowers, a Democrat who is now in his fourth term in office,  joined the growing chorus of (mostly Republican) American politicians vocally trying to turn away Syrian refugees; but Bowers has taken a unique angle on his reasons why.

In an entirely unsolicited press statement, Bowers’ office  announced it would be asking Roanoke Valley government and non-government officials to halt aid to Syrian refugees. He justified the stance by suggesting that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was right to treat Japanese American civilians with similar suspicion during World War II.

Just a few paragraphs after Bowers praised Roanoke as “a welcoming city”, Bowers wrote (emphasis added):

Today, I’m requesting all Roanoke Valley governments and non-governmental agencies suspend and delay any further Syrian refugee assistance until these serious hostilities and atrocities end, or 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 (sic) is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.

In the year that marks 70 years after the Japanese American incarceration camps’ closure, this statement feels particularly awful. Apparently Bowers is unaware that there has been zero evidence ever uncovered showing that the hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans and nationals forcibly imprisoned by the federal government during World War II ever posed any military danger to the safety of their fellow Americans.

Bowers closes his statement saying “it seems to me to be better safe than sorry.” Yet, we have seen the eventual outcome of this kind of close-minded, xenophobic, and intolerant stance: it does little to create safety, while those who adopt it typically find themselves sorry to be on the wrong side of history.

If one needed any more evidence that all racism is intersectional, and that the Asian American community has a stake in the fight for racial justice, again we have it. Seventy years ago, they treated Japanese Americans with hostility and suspicion, and incarcerated innocent families at gunpoint. Forty years ago, they tried to turn away Vietnamese refugees and other Southeast Asians. Thirty years ago, it was Cuban refugees. Now, Syrian refugees endure that mistreatment. But, in all cases, the poison of racism and intolerance remains unchanged.

Act Now! Bowers is not seeking re-election, but I think he deserves to hear how inappropriate his statements regarding Syrian refugees and Japanese American incarceration are. You can contact the Mayor’s Office by phone at 540-853-2444 or send him an email at mayor@roanokeva.gov.

Update (11/19/2015): Actor and director George Takei, who made his Broadway debut earlier this month with Allegiance, a musical inspired by his childhood at Tule Lake, issued the following statement over Facebook.

Earlier today, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, Mr. David A. Bowers, in the attached letter, joined several state governors in ordering that Syrian refugees not receive any government assistance, or be relocated to their jurisdiction. Apart from the lack of legal authority to do so (under the Refugee Act of 1980, only the President has authority to accept or deny refugees), his resort to fear-based tactics, and his galling lack of compassion for people fleeing these same terrorists, Mayor Bowers made the following startling statement:

“I’m reminded that 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.”

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 4 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.

— George Takei

Representative Mike Honda published the following statement on his Facebook:

I was raised in an internment camp and know firsthand 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 Casada, and Rhode Island State Senator 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 shockwaves 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. ?#?NeverAgain9066?

JACL has also published a denouncement of Mayor Bowers’ press release, while AAAJ will be submitting statements of support for Syrian refugees to the US House Judiciary Committee and to the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security today.

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