One Virginia mayor is justifying temporarily halting his city from taking in Syrian refugees because President Franklin D. Roosevelt once “felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.”
Citing recent attacks in Paris, the bombing of a Russian airliner, and threats to the nation’s capital, Roanoke Mayor David Bowers (D) requested for local and non-governmental agencies to “suspend and delay” assistance, noting that he was “convinced that it is presently imprudent to assist in the relocation of Syrian refugees to our part of Virginia.”
Two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Roosevelt passed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the forced removals of 110,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps around the country. At the time, Charles Fahy, an U.S. official appointed by Roosevelt, deliberately deceived the Supreme Court by hiding a report from the Office of Naval Intelligence which found that Japanese Americans on the west coast didn’t pose a military threat. That report found no evidence that Japanese Americans were disloyal or were spies, as many rumors suggested at the time.
The internment of Japanese people remains one of the most controversial and arguably constitutionally low points in American history. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan (R) signed the Civil Liberties Act to compensate and formally apologize to more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II.
Though Bowers likely needs to brush up on his World War II history, he’s only just one of many reactionary lawmakers who have objected to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in recent days. The decision isn’t up to him, however. Over the past two years, the U.S. has admitted about 1,800 Syrian refugees, though President Barack Obama has stated that he would allow about 10,000 more in the 2016 fiscal year. What’s more, refugees actually undergo a tedious, years-long screening process to properly vet their legal status.
Bowers’ statement conflicts with the position that Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has taken for his state to continue to accept refugees. In a tweet, the Virginia Democrats called the comments “disgraceful.” And State Sen. John S. Edwards (D) told the Washington Post, “What the hell did he say that for? I’m surprised; I’m with the governor and the president on this.”
Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), who was raised in an internment camp, issued a sharp rebuke to Bowers’ statement, saying that he knows “firsthand how that dark moment in our nation’s history led to repercussions that have resonated over the years.”
“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,” Honda added. “We cannot allow this to happen again and reverse the progress we have made in the last several decades.”
Japanese-American actor George Takei, who was also interned for four years as a child, said, “It is my life’s mission to never let such a thing happen again in America. […]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.”
According to Buzzfeed, Bowers was removed from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s Virginia Leadership Council.
This post has been updated to include statements from State Sen. Edwards, the Virginia Democrats, Rep. Mike Honda, and George Takei. The post has also been updated to include Bowers’ apology.