November 18, 2015

Today, David A. Bowers, mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, issued a statement that favorably invoked World War II incarceration as justification for his city’s opposition to accepting Syrian refugees. In the statement, he said:

“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.”

We were troubled by the callous suggestion that this dark chapter in American history be repeated, but we hope to use this as an opportunity to educate Mayor Bowers and others about that history. Eric Muller, legal scholar and author of Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II put this much-needed history lesson so succinctly, that we are quoting it in full here:

Let me break this down for you, Mr. Mayor of Roanoke.

There were two kinds of “sequestration” (the Mayor’s word) of “Japanese nationals” (the Mayor’s words) after Pearl Harbor.

(1) Relatively small numbers of Japanese resident alien men were arrested as “enemy aliens” by the FBI after Pearl Harbor and detained in Justice Department internment camps. These arrests had the veneer of legality in that they were based on some piece of evidence that signaled danger in the eyes of the government and were effected pursuant to statutory authority stretching back to the 18th century. BUT: the “evidence” of danger included such nefarious things as teaching judo, heading a Japanese business association, or being the bookkeeper for a Japanese after-school program. Mr. Mayor, I don’t think you want to hang your hat on these arrests, given that their purported foundation did nothing more than reflect the irrational and xenophobic fear that gripped the nation at the time. Oh, and US Attorney General Francis Biddle repudiated the entire arrest program in 1943.

(2) In a separate program, large numbers of Japanese resident aliens (some 40,000) were evicted from their homes and locked up in prison camps en masse, without any evidence of dangerousness at all. The only criterion was that they were Japanese. That lockup lasted for several years. Mr. Mayor, I don’t think you want to hang your hat on these detentions either, given that Congress determined in the early 1980s that they were based on racism and hysteria rather than valid security concerns. The government issued survivors a token redress payment of $20,000 per person. So … probably not the sort of precedent you want to invoke.

(3) I don’t want to omit the possibility that by lining yourself up behind the “sequestration” of “Japanese nationals,” you are referring to the mass detention not of Japanese resident aliens but of some 75,000 US CITIZENS of Japanese ancestry without evidence from ’42 to ’45. If that’s the precedent you’re invoking, well, you’re just being a complete idiot.

We encourage Mayor Bowers and other leaders to learn more about Japanese American incarceration history, as it is our hope that this mistake is never repeated. A great place to start is with this series of short essays and videos: