Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Fearing another historical mistake

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, was born in an Arizona internment camp. “I thought we had learned our lesson,” she now says. “But fear can be disabling.”
Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, was born in an Arizona internment camp. “I thought we had learned our lesson,” she now says. “But fear can be disabling.” rbenton@sacbee.com

Now a venerable congresswoman whose last name is well known in Sacramento, Doris Matsui’s life was shaped by bigotry and fear. The lawmaker was born in an Arizona internment camp where people were imprisoned primarily because of their Japanese ancestry and ethnic features.

After Japanese forces attacked U.S. naval installations at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, fear drove the U.S. government to incarcerate nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans because they were viewed as a threat to national security. American forces were also at war with Germany and Italy, but most Americans of German and Italian ancestry were spared the injustices endured by Japanese Americans.

Now 71, Matsui had hoped such ethnic and racial targeting was over. In her lifetime, she has seen America move from supporting internment to condemning it. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act. It offered a formal apology from the U.S. government to surviving Japanese Americans interned during World War II. It also offered up to $20,000 per person in reparations to Japanese Americans who had lost their homes and possessions when they were rounded up and sent away.

“I thought we had learned our lesson,” Matsui said by phone on Friday. “But fear can be disabling.”

The fear now is terrorism, and the focus is on a small trickle of Syrian refugees settling in the United States. That humanitarian program has been assailed in Congress, where House members this past week approved legislation that effectively would block Syrian refugees from settling in the U.S. The fear is that terrorists could infiltrate the ranks of fleeing refugees, slip into America and stage a terrorist attack.

That fear was stoked when terrorists killed more than 120 people in and around Paris on Nov. 13. There were reports that at least one of the Paris terrorists had entered France after posing as a refugee fleeing violence, though investigators have not yet confirmed this.

No matter. Polls show that most Americans want to stop Syrian refugees from being admitted into the United States. In a Bloomberg Politics national poll, 53 percent of of Americans interviewed after the Paris attacks said that America should stop allowing Syrian refugees in the country. Several GOP governors have said they don’t want Syrians in their states.

I want to keep this country safe. But we have to make sure that fear is not driving us to the wrong conclusions.

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento

Some GOP presidential candidates have seized on the issue as well, though Democrats in Congress played a key role in supporting the recent legislation that would in effect suspend resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S. One of them was Elk Grove Democrat Ami Bera.

Bera is in a vulnerable district. This past week, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones announced that he would challenge Bera next year. So instead of handing Jones an issue to exploit, the only Indian American in Congress voted with the crowd on Syrian refugees.

Matsui wouldn’t comment on Bera’s vote. But she knows what happens when American legislators are moved by ethnic fear. “I know people are really scared because of what happened in Paris,” Matsui said. “But they aren’t thinking.”

After Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor, Matsui’s relatives and thousands of others experienced racial animus from their fellow Americans. Many of those interned had lived in the U.S. for a long time. But what mattered more was how they looked. “After the day of infamy, they became officially ‘enemy aliens’ in the eyes of other Americans,” Frank Wu, the dean of Hastings Law School, wrote on americanbar.org. “Citizenship ceased to matter.

“It turns out, once again, to be easy enough to surrender the civil rights of somebody else,” continued Wu, who has written extensively about how fear has stoked racial and ethnic profiling in the United States.

What moved Matsui and others to speak out about Syrian refugees this past week were the words of David Bowers, mayor of Roanoke, Va. On city letterhead, Bowers wrote: “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 (terrorist group) Isis is just as real and as serious as that from our enemies then.”

Bowers since has apologized for his comments, but they illustrate how quickly some can forget dark chapters of American history. Many young Japanese Americans volunteered or were drafted and served with distinction in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. The threat that they posed to American national security was exposed by history as a racially motivated lie.

It should be noted that Matsui is not making a direct comparison between the experience of her family and that of Syrian refugees in the U.S. “It’s not the same thing,” she said. “But the fear is the same thing. The lashing out.”

According to The Washington Post, the United States has accepted fewer than 2,500 Syrian refugees since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. Half of the refugees accepted from Syria have been children, The Post reported. About 25 percent are people over the age of 60. About 2 percent of the refugees are males “of combat age,” the Post wrote.

It takes the State Department 18 to 24 months to process refugee resettlement cases.

“The State Department says Syrian refugees are subjected to the most intensive screening of any group, given the murkiness of the civil war they’re fleeing,” McClatchy Newspapers reported last week.

“I want to keep this country safe,” Matsui said. “But we have to make sure that fear is not driving us to the wrong conclusions.”

Matsui said that after internment, many of her relatives carried emotional scars to their graves. Her late husband, Rep. Bob Matsui, dedicated years to seeking reparations – the process took more than a decade. When President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, Doris Matsui and others were ecstatic.

“In the sweep of history, it demonstrated the greatness of this country,” she said. “This was already settled. But it can happen again, and that’s where we are today.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed Nov. 22 to clarify that Democrats in Congress helped support recent legislation that would in effect suspend resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S., not end their relocation.

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