Japanese Americans protest suggestion that Syrian refugees be confined

Mayor David Bowers of Roanoke, Va., has been criticized for suggesting World War II internments were a precedent for how to deal with Muslim refugees.
Mayor David Bowers of Roanoke, Va., has been criticized for suggesting World War II internments were a precedent for how to deal with Muslim refugees. AP

Sacramento Japanese Americans joined Muslim Americans, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians on Thursday to protest the assertion by the mayor of Roanoke, Va., that the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was justified, and that Syrian refugees should be considered just as serious a threat.

“I’m reminded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears the threat of harm to America from ISIS is now just as real and serious as that from our enemies then,” Roanoke Mayor David Bowers said in a Wednesday statement.

Citing the downing of a Russian jetliner, the Paris attacks and “murderous threats on our nation’s capital,” Bowers called on government and non-governmental agencies in the Roanoke area to stop assisting refugees “until these serious hostilities and atrocities end, or at the very least until regarded as under control by U.S. authorities, and normalcy is restored.”

Bowers’ comments quickly went viral, and were condemned by his council colleagues.

They stirred outrage among Japanese Americans in Sacramento whose families were among the 120,000 people imprisoned in internment camps during World War II. In a news conference at the Buddhist Church of Florin on Thursday morning, Andy Noguchi, co-president of the Florin Japanese American Citizens League, said Bowers’ statement “justifies the exclusion of innocent Syrian refugees fleeing terrorism by the World War II imprisonment of Japanese Americans in American concentration camps.”

Noguchi, joined by several former internees, welcomed the “innocent Syrian victims of terrorism” to Sacramento. He recalled that in 1988 President Ronald Reagan apologized to the surviving Japanese Americans and paid them reparations of $20,000 over a 10-year period.

A federal commission studying the WWII camps has concluded they were the result of “prejudice, war hysteria, and the failure of political leadership.”

Today, “Japanese Americans and others are fearful that our country is making the same mistake, this time targeting innocent Syrians fleeing terrorism and seeking a safer life,” Noguchi said. “The prejudice, war hysteria and failure of political leadership are being repeated.”

Several Japanese American community organizations, the Council on American Islamic Relations-Sacramento Valley, Sacramento Sikh Temple, Buddhist Church of Florin and Christians in the audience all expressed support for Syrian refugees.

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Sacramento has emerged as a hub for Syrian refugees in California. Since 2012, 63 Syrian refugees have settled in the city of Sacramento, the second-highest number in the state after San Diego, State Department figures show.

Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Sacramento Valley Chapter of CAIR, noted Bowers’ statement comes as a growing number of governors and members of Congress have said they don’t want to accept Syrian refugees.

Such sentiments have been rising since last Friday’s coordinated series of suicide bombings and shootings in Paris that killed 129 people. But Elkarra said refugees from countries where the Islamic State operates don’t pose a threat.

“French and German intelligence have ruled that all the suspects were home-grown terrorists from France and Belgium and that the Syrian passport found at the scene was forged,” Elkarra said. “The vetting process is very thorough ... It’s a long process that works, it’s not broken.”

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Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove was among those who voted for H.R. 4038, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, requiring the Department of Homeland Security to verify that each refugee entering the United States has undergone a background check to ensure they are not a security threat.

“It is critical that our first priority is to keep America safe – that is why I voted today for a bill to ensure that all Syrian refugees are thoroughly vetted,” Bera said in a statement Thursday. “However, we can’t let the terrorists win and influence who we are as Americans. Our country has always been a place for those fleeing violence or oppression and we must stay true to those values. This additional screening step will ensure that we know those coming into the country are not a security threat.”

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, weighed in Thursday afternoon with a statement denouncing Bowers. “We know that there is much fear after the heinous attacks on the people of France,” she said. “Fear can be understood, but fear-mongering has no place in the determination to make us safe. It only adds to more fear.”

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @StephenMagagnini

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