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Blog: Lessons Learned from WWII Incarceration Camps Mean Nothing to Roanoke Mayor

Syrian Refugees

By Mandy Day

Roanoke mayor David Bowers has released a statement advising all Roanoke Valley governments to refuse assistance to Syrian refugees resettling in “our part of Virginia” until the threat of terrorism is eliminated.  The Democratic leader for Roanoke justified his position by referring to Executive Order 9066, the policy that incarcerated 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, and how it protected the United States during the Second World War.

The mayor used cringe-worthy wording in his message:

Roanoke is a welcoming city and America is the melting pot of the world, and right and successful we have been at both. However, since the recent terrorist bombing of the Russian airliner, the attacks in Paris and now with the murderous threats to our nation’s capital, I am convinced that it is presently imprudent to assist in the relocation of Syrian refugees to our part of Virginia.

David Bowers
David Bowers

His word choice, a commonly used method for people to make racist and/or bigoted remarks without appearing so, Mayor Bowers has demonstrated that he has little regard for the words so eloquently written on the Statue of Liberty. His statement conveys the “I’m not racist, but…” excuse for promoting fear and intolerance. His comments differentiate little from people occupying the governor’s seat in thirty states, who have vowed to do everything in their power to keep refugees out. Members of the Roanoke City Council admonished Bowers when interviewed by members of the media, one council member going as far as calling the Mayor “selfish” and “narcissistic”. Virginia’s Governor Terry McAuliffe has publicly stated he has no reservations about resettling refugees in his state. Not much can be done on a state level to restrict entry as only the President of the United States have the right to refuse or accept refugees under the Refugee Act of 1980, but states may refuse to cooperate and reject federal funding for resettlement, which could make the process of resettling refugees much more difficult.

As the debate rages on about the status of refugee resettlement, Bowers has drawn widespread condemnation for using the Japanese American mass incarceration as his rationalization for keeping Syrians out of the Roanoke Valley. He had recently earned a spot on Hillary Clinton’s Leadership Council for Virginia, something he lost after his statement was released. Bowers was berated by a Clinton campaign spokesperson when they announced he was no longer associated with her presidential campaign. Members of the U.S. House Representatives’ Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) have denounced Bowers’ message including Rep. Mike Honda, who was imprisoned in a Colorado camp as a baby. Other CAPAC members, Rep. Judy Chu, and Mark Takano spoke on the controversy within hours of the mayor’s statement going public along with organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), Organization for Chinese Americans, National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA), and Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

JACL Executive Director Priscilla Ouchida spoke out in favor of welcoming the resettlement of refugees from Syria saying that the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans should be a lesson against falling victim to fear and paranoia. Ouchida, also an executive committee member of  NCAPA,  issued a press release today through their website expressing outrage over Mayor Bowers’ comments:

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. 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 call for actions that reflect our nation’s ideals.

Mayor Bowers did not just use a dark period in American history to promote his agenda, he also openly displayed his lack of historical knowledge. As Ouchida pointed out, not a single person was charged or convicted of subversive acts, and the mass hysteria promoted by the United States government led to decades of discrimination and harassment faced by Japanese Americans, or those suspected to be. Bowers called the people forcefully removed from their homes in 1942 “foreign nationals”, either ignorant of or ignoring of the fact that more than 80% of incarcerated persons were born in the United States. Many of those same individuals went on to fight for their country’s military during the war while their families lived in deplorable conditions within the eight camps’ barbed wire fences. The most decorated military unit in United States history consisted of some of those men. Norman Mineta, the first Asian American to head a department in the presidential cabinet,  grew up in one of these camps.

Japanese American Incareration CampAs someone of Japanese ancestry, without a camp story, I am not completely unbiased in my criticism of Mayor Bowers. I grew up listening to the stories of people who spent part of their lives trapped in a desolate areas of the country. They generously shared their hardships with those of us who did not have family imprisoned in Rowher, Manzanar, Tule Lake, Poston, or Minidoka. My own grandmother, a war bride who immigrated to the United States in the late 1950’s, rarely talked of her life in Japan before or during the war much like the immigrant Japanese who were forced into these prisons. Our family faced its own struggles with racism and discrimination in the United States, much of it brought on by the wartime propaganda that continues to permeate the mindset of non-Japanese Americans.

Those of us without the memories of long bathroom lines, weaving camouflage tents for soldiers, bitterly cold winters and brutally hot summers, turned to organizations like the JACL and elder members of our community to share those stories with us. Some spent their lives educating children about the camps and why it should never happen again. The 1988 apology and $20,000 check was not enough to compensate people for what they lost. Said then President George H.W. Bush:

In remembering, it is important to come to grips with the past. No nation can fully understand itself or find its place in the world if it does not look with clear eyes at all the glories and disgraces of its past. We in the United States acknowledge such an injustice in our history. The internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry was a great injustice, and it will never be repeated.

There are more than four million Syrian refugees and the number increases daily. One refugee passport was found next to a body in Paris, possibly planted there according to Germany’s Interior Minister. The purpose is to incite hate and fear, to turn people against one another. Fractured, we are weak and susceptible to fighting each other, not Islamic State. ISIS wants us to live in fear. They do not seek to impose Islamic law on the world, they seek to strip us of our security, happiness, and humanity. To make us so fearful of one another, that those isolated from the majority become followers and fighters.

To Mayor Bowers, do not sell your agenda using the painful history of my fellow Japanese Americans. It has been nearly 74 years since Executive Order 9066. Members of our community have spent decades trying to undo the damage caused by such extreme racism and fear. If anything, we have learned that policies like the one you promote do not work. More than a dozen presidential candidates make callous remarks about the dispossessed. Like them, you have forgotten the biblical teachings politicians like yourself expound upon when selling a candidacy to voters. Syrian refugees are desperate for a safe place to live, to raise their children, to heal from the horrors they have witnessed. We promote ourselves as the country that welcomes such people with open arms, compassion, and love in our hearts. We are citizens of a country whose leaders takes every opportunity to declare that we’re the greatest country in the history of the world. It is time that we live up to that claim.

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