Virginia Mayor Invokes Internment Camp Model in Matter of Syrian Refugees

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Japan-internment

By War Relocation Authority [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

November 19, 2015; USA Today

Rick Cohen reported earlier this week on the political posturing going on among some politicians with regard to resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States. In Virginia, Roanoke Mayor David Bowers asked all local agencies to refrain from providing assistance to Syrian refugees until the current hostilities had ceased, making reference to the use of internment camps to confine Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Apparently without understanding that the camps are considered to be one of the more shameful moments in U.S. history, he wrote in a statement, “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 now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”

Perhaps the mayor missed the fact that the U.S. government has since issued a formal apology to those internees and their heirs, and paid reparations.

Other local officials do not agree. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who has said his state will accept the refugees, and State Sen. John S. Edwards, who represents Roanoke, asked, “What the hell did he say that for?”

Still, the New York Times reports that some state lawmakers say they are penning legislation to prohibit state agencies from assisting Syrians to resettle in Virginia for the next two years, and that they have asked McAuliffe to refuse Syrian refugees over that same period.

Actor George Takei wrote on Facebook:

Mayor Bowers, there are a few key points of history you seem to have missed. […] 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.

American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga said she was appalled that Bowers asked agencies “to single out refugees on the basis of their race, ethnicity, or nationality. It is an effort that plays into the very fear that terrorists seek to inspire, and threatens the principles for which the United States stands.”

The government’s denial of liberty and freedom to over 100,000 individuals of Japanese descent—many of whom were citizens or legal residents and half of whom were children—is a dark stain on America’s history that Mayor Bowers should learn from rather than seek to emulate.

The Washington Post reports that only 24 Syrian refugees have settled in Virginia since the start of the civil war, according to State Department data.—Ruth McCambridge

  • Tricia Baker

    Racism is still racism, no matter the excuse.