A Virginia mayor ignited a backlash Wednesday after he cited America's mass detention of Japanese Americans during World War II as support for his call to deny Syrian refugees the opportunity to resettle in the United States.
In a letter on official city stationery, Roanoke, Va., Mayor David A. Bowers asked local governments and nonprofit groups to join the more than half of the nation's governors who have said they do not want to accept Syrian refugees into their states, citing security concerns after last week's Paris terrorist attacks that killed at least 129 people. The Obama administration plans to admit about 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year.
Bowers' stance on the issue is just one among many. In Congress, Republican lawmakers plan to vote on legislation toughening the U.S. screening process for Syrian and Iraqi refugees despite a veto threat by President Obama.
But there was one paragraph in Bowers' letter — which called Roanoke a “welcoming city” — that was highly unusual:
“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 [Islamic State] now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then,” Bowers, a Democrat, said in the statement.
For many public officials across the nation, the mass detention of Japanese Americans during World War II has long been one of the most embarrassing moments in the nation's history — a dark chapter that has been apologized for and legally repudiated, and which is now providing a mirror for some Asian American lawmakers to hold up to the present.
“I can't believe that I'm having to point this out, but most people today — most historians, most respected students of history — would say the internment of Japanese Americans was a mistake and it's not a model on which to base policy today,” said Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside), whose parents and grandparents were interned during World War II.
“What did occur in the wake of Pearl Harbor was an irrational response to wartime hysteria, and I would say that the way that the local discourse is going on right now is we're allowing the word, the notion of Syrian refugees, to be conflated with terrorism,” Takano said Wednesday.
Rep. Judy Chu (D- Monterey Park) similarly condemned the Roanoke mayor's remarks.
“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,” Chu said in a statement. “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.”
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign had previously touted an endorsement from Bowers on its website, but by Wednesday, Bowers' name had been erased from the site, and the campaign issued a blunt rejection of his statement: “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.”
While opposition to the Syrian refugees has been led by governors, they have no authority to reject the federal government's resettlement of refugees into their states through a long-established program.
But political hostility to the plan, mainly among Republicans, grew quickly this week as the world has been transfixed with the grim aftermath of the Paris attacks.
Obama said that denying entry to Syrian refugees would be like “slamming the door in their faces” and a “betrayal of our values.”
In a statement threatening a veto of increased screening of refugees, the White House said such a law “would provide no meaningful additional security for the American people, instead serving only to create significant delays and obstacles in the fulfillment of a vital program that satisfies both humanitarian and national security objectives.”
Throughout the debate this week, many on social media platforms referenced the agony of the Japanese internment and the fear of Jewish migrants during World War II as reasons why Americans should not turn their backs on Syrian refugees.
In 1942, America was reeling from the Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor and was building a war machine to fight its enemies around the world.
Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, commanding general of the Western Defense Command, laid out in stark terms why Japanese Americans should be evacuated from the Pacific Coast in a memorandum to the U.S. secretary of war.
“In the war in which we are now engaged, racial affinities are not severed by migration,” DeWitt wrote. “The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second- and third-generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,' the racial strains are undiluted.
“The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken,” he wrote.
DeWitt wasn't alone. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously urged Roosevelt to go ahead with Japanese detention, saying it was difficult “if not impossible to distinguish between loyal and disloyal Japanese aliens.”
In February 1942, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which resulted in more than 100,000 Japanese Americans being uprooted and held in detention camps for several years, along with thousands of people of German and Italian descent.
“The fact is that 120,000 people of Japanese descent — men, women and children — were incarcerated,” said Greg Kimura, president and chief executive of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles “There were racist immigration laws at the time, so Japanese citizens could not become naturalized citizens. Only their children born here could.”
President Ford rescinded the order in 1976, and in 1988 President Reagan signed legislation that apologized and paid reparations for the U.S. government's decision to apprehend and place Japanese Americans in camps.
When the checks and letters of apology went out in 1991, President George H.W. Bush wrote to surviving families: “A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories; neither can they fully convey our nation's resolve to rectify injustice and to uphold the rights of individuals. We can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II.”
Kimura said that the Roanoke mayor's statement was sadly familiar.
“I was talking with some staff people here, but whether it's the Iranian hostage crisis, or [the wars in the Persian Gulf and Iraq], and 9-11 especially — every one of these historical events, there's some politician that gets up and makes this same analogy,” Kimura said. “It's just not American for us to judge people solely by where they come from or solely on how they look.”
Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-San Jose), who was raised in an internment camp, said in a statement Wednesday: “I am hopeful we will not allow our anger and outrage towards these terrorists and their cowardly attacks on civilians [in Paris] to turn us away from compassion and generosity.”
Kurtis Lee contributed to this report.
Follow @MattDPearce on Twitter for national news.