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Virginia Mayor Cites Japanese Internment in Statement on Barring Refugees

Roanoke Mayor David Bowers cited Japanese-American internment during World War II as historical precedence for barring Syrian refugees from the U.S.
David A. Bowers, mayor of Roanoke, Virginia.
David A. Bowers, mayor of Roanoke, Virginia.City of Roanoke

On Wednesday, the Democratic mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, David Bowers, called for area governments and nongovernmental agencies to suspend and delay any further assistance to Syrian refugees, citing the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II as historical precedence.

“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 just as real and serious as that from our enemies then,” Bowers wrote in a statement, according to the Roanoke Times. “It seems to me to be better safe than sorry.”

Bowers’ remarks were a far cry from those of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who told NPR that Washington welcomes Syrian refugees, also referring to Roosevelt’s decision to incarcerate his neighbors on Bainbridge Island. “But it was a bad decision, and it wasn't consistent with who we are as a country. And we look back at that now and say, you know, we lost our way," Inslee said.

The response from Asian-American advocates and leaders on Wednesday was swift.

"Irresponsible statements from Mayor Bowers and others is driving unwarranted hysteria, similar to rhetoric that led to the imprisonment of 120,000 loyal Japanese American men, women and children during World War II,” Priscilla Ouchida, executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), told NBC News. “Not one of the Japanese Americans was ever charged with a crime or found guilty of a subversive act. These statements are too familiar — emotion should not be an excuse for profiling any group of law-abiding people. We join the President and [Washington] Governor Inslee in calling for actions that reflect our nation's ideals."

“Japanese internment was a dark chapter in American history — so un-American [that] Congress later apologized for it,” Representative Judy Chu, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), wrote in a statement, along with several members of Congress. “The fact that not one single case of espionage by a Japanese American was proven underscores how wrong Mayor Bowers is to positively cite this policy. Instead of keeping us safe, Japanese internment compromised our principles and demonized an entire population of Americans. It is outrageous to let the same kind of xenophobia influence our policy today. If we do, we will only regret it again.”

University of Washington Bothell history professor Scott Kurashige told NBC News that Bowers is conflating two different historical events, neither of which actually fits the mayor's stance. “First, it is true that the FBI and law enforcement questioned and detained roughly 5,000 Japanese Americans in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Most of these people were foreign nationals, but the main thing that made a person ‘suspicious’ was having been a leader within the Japanese-American community rather than any kind of documented espionage or sabotage," Kurashige said. "In fact, some of those questioned and detained, including U.S. citizens, were released. Second, it was only after political pressure and false allegations led FDR to issue [Executive Order] 9066 in February 1942 that the mass internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans began. This order made no distinction between U.S. citizens and foreign nationals.”

In a post on Facebook, actor and activist George Takei called Bowers out, and also invited the mayor to see his current Broadway show "Allegiance," which tells the story of Japanese-American internment—which Takei himself experienced.

According to BuzzFeed, Bowers was on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's Virginia Leadership Council, but is "no longer on the committee."

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the closing of the 10 camps that held more than 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II—a history not entirely lost on Virginia which recently designated January 30 “Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution” in the state, beginning in 2016, thanks to HJ641 authored by Virginia State Delegate Mark Keam. Fred Korematsu is one of four individuals who challenged the constitutionality of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II all the way to the Supreme Court. Another challenger, Min Yasui, will be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom next week.

Though Japanese-American internment ended in 1945 in the U.S., the government formally apologized and granted reparations to all surviving Japanese Americans unlawfully relocated during the war more than 40 years later with the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 by President Ronald Reagan.

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