Virginia Mayor Defends His Opposition to Refugees by Citing America’s Rich History of Interning Minority Groups

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Mess line, noon
Photo: Library of Congress

Mayor David Bowers of Roanoke, Virginia, does not want Syrian refugees moving into his city. In the nerve-racked aftermath of the terror attacks in Paris, Bowers is hardly unique in holding that position. But Bowers is unique in likening his own stance to Franklin Roosevelt’s policy of Japanese internment — a policy generally invoked as a shameful reminder of America’s capacity for xenophobic overreaction. And that isn’t just Noam Chomsky’s opinion, it’s also the U.S. government’s. To compensate Japanese Americans for the crime of their internment, Uncle Sam paid out more than $1 billion in reparations.

And yet, in his official statement requesting that his government agencies suspend all assistance to Syrian refugees, Bowers writes the following:

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 [sic] now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”

In a sense, Bowers’s statement is accurate. The threat from Syrian refugees appears to be just about as real and serious as it was from Japanese-American families during World War II — not very real or serious at all. Which is why, in the contemporary debate over refugees, the analogy to Japanese internment has typically been made by opponents of Bowers’s position. The historical consensus demonstrates that the decision to intern the Japanese Americans derived from racial prejudice and political convenience rather than any actual evidence of a threat to national security. Considering the fact that all currently identified suspects in the Paris attacks were European nationals, one might speculate that the very same thing is true of the present-day backlash against Syrian refugees.

But in Bowers’s defense, while he implicitly praises Japanese internment, he at least isn’t calling for already resettled Syrian refugees to be rounded up. For that kind of innovative policy thinking, you’ll have to turn to this Tennessee state representative.