Following the Nov. 13 Paris terror attacks, American lawmakers expressed concerns about admitting Syrian refugees into the United States. In response to the possibility of terrorists posing as refugees, the House of Representatives introduced H.R. 4038, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, Nov. 17 and passed it in a 289-137 vote Nov. 19. The bill would require refugees from Iraq or Syria to be vetted by the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the Director of National Intelligence.
The Senate has yet to vote on the bill, which President Barack Obama said he would veto.
Allusion to Japanese American Incarceration
Among those calling to bar or further vet refugees, one politician alluded to the incarceration of Nikkei in concentration camps during World War II and others spoke about rounding Syrian refugees up.
Citing the Oct. 31 bombing of a Russian airliner and the Nov. 13 attacks on Paris, David Bowers, mayor of Roanoke, Va., wrote Nov. 18 that “it is presently imprudent to assist in the relocation of Syrian refugees to our part of Virginia.” Whereas other politicians have also tried to turn away Syrian refugees, Bowers went a step further to use the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans as a precedent.
“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,” he wrote in his statement.
Some 120,000 persons of Japanese descent, more than two-thirds of them American citizens, were incarcerated by the U.S. military during World War II. The United States issued an apology in 1988, admitting the incarceration was prompted by “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
The mayor’s comments provoked a groundswell of reactions from the Japanese American community, most notably by actor George Takei who wrote on his popular Facebook page, “the internment (not a ‘sequester’) was not of Japanese ‘foreign nationals,’ but of Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens.”
Rep. Doris Matsui issued a statement in response to Bowers, saying, “Our first responsibility is to provide for the safety of our constituents. We know that there is much fear after the heinous attacks on the people of France. Fear can be understood, but fear-mongering has no place in the determination to make us safe. It only adds to more fear. …
“This kind of talk by Mr. Bowers is not the answer. As vulnerable families pursue asylum from the terror being waged in Syria and Iraq, I hope we will remain a model for the world. I want future generations to look back at this time and see that we stood for American values and helped those in need.”
The Minoru Yasui Tribute committee responded to Bowers’ comment, saying, “We know that Min Yasui himself, who spent his entire life speaking up and speaking out against injustice, would not have remained silent at this outrage. We condemn the invocation of the injustices suffered by all persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II as a justification for an equally shameful policy of excluding Syrian refugees. The xenophobic thinking advanced by Mayor Bowers, which fires the flames of war hysteria, does not make us more secure, but on the contrary undermines the very foundations of our country that make us strong.” The statement was signed by Holly Yasui, Peggy Nagae and Robin Yasui.
The tribute committee noted that just two days before Bowers made his statement, Obama had announced that Yasui would posthumously receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom for fighting against wartime incarceration.
Priscilla Ouchida, executive director of the National Japanese American Citizens League, said statements such as Bowers’ are “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.”
Andy Noguchi, co-president of the Florin chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, helped to swiftly organize a press conference in support of Syrian refugees after learning of Bowers’ comments. “Within minutes of Roanoke Mayor Bowers’ outrageous comments … several Florin JACL members and supporters active on social media … raised the issue for us. The Florin JACL and Council on American Islamic Relations – Sacramento Valley decided to speak out the very next morning in a news conference,” Noguchi saidin an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly.
“We protest the fear-mongering proposals that Syrian refugees … be excluded from this country or even locked up in concentration camps, as WWII Japanese Americans were once unjustly imprisoned. Our America is better than that,” he said. “As those unjustly imprisoned before and their family members, we say no. No to this scapegoating of innocent people. No to racism. No to war hysteria. No to failed political leadership.”
Noguchi said Bowers, along with Tennessee General Assembly Republican Caucus Chair Glen Casada and Rhode Island State Senator Elaine Morgan, were “proposing American concentration camps like before,” through their respective comments on Syrian refugees.
Having been raised in a concentration camp, Rep. Mike Honda said he knew firsthand the repercussions of wartime incarceration and expressed outrage over Bowers, Casada and Morgan’s comments.
“They are perpetuating the messages of hate and fear that fly in the fact of what America stands for in the world,” he said. Honda also said, “The Japanese and Japanese Americans interned after the bombing of Pearl Harbor was an outrage, as was turning away Jews at our borders who were fleeing German persecution. We cannot allow this to happen again and reverse the progress we have made in the last several decades.”
According to the Associated Press, Morgan wrote in an e-mail to a constituent, “I think this is a major plan by these countries to spread out their people to attack all non Muslim persons … If we need to take these people in we should set up refugee camp (sic) to keep them segregated from our populous. The Muslim religion and philosophy is to murder, rape, and decapitate anyone who is a non Muslim.” The report said she later clarified the e-mail had not been edited prior to sending, and that she had meant to say “fanatical Muslim religion and philosophy” and “federal immigration center” instead of a “refugee camp.” She maintained that she was concerned about the potential of terrorists posing as refugees.
Casada drew criticism in Tennessee for suggesting not only that his state should turn away new refugees, but to mobilize the Tennessee National Guard to gather up resettled Syrian refugees in the state and place them in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement Center, according to The Tennessean.
The Tennessean reported Nov. 26 that Casada has since maintained his opinion and quoted him saying, “Our Democratic friends like to exaggerate, and so they want to portray this picture that we’re going to take them to intern (sic) camps, … No. We gather them, we take them back to (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), back to the federal government, and we say, ‘Gentlemen, make sure these guys have no tie to terrorist activity.’”
Bowers initially maintained his statement, but apologized for his comments Nov. 20.
In both a city meeting and in a post on the city’s Facebook page, Bowers apologized to “all those offended by my remarks. No one else is to be blamed, but me.” He went on to say that it was his responsibility to rectify the damage his statement has caused and that he particularly apologizes to “Americans of Japanese descent for the unwise and inappropriate comparison between the internment … and the current refugee crisis. Any such comparison was a mistake and I apologize for this mistake. It’s just not in my heart to be racist or bigoted.”
While acknowledging calls for his resignation, he gave no indication that he would step down, and did not explicitly change his stance on the Syrian refugees themselves. Bowers is slated to serve as mayor of Roanoke through June 30, 2016. Bowers did not respond by press time to the Nichi Bei Weekly’s request for comment.
“We appreciate Mayor Bowers’ apology,” said Mee Moua, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice — AAJC. “Still, in maintaining his position opposing the resettlement of Syrian refugees in America, Mayor Bowers repeats the offense of vilifying an entire community based on unfounded and irrational fears. We cannot let fear and prejudice blind us and dismantle the founding values of this nation of immigrants.”
APAs Vote on H.R. 4038
Of the Congressional leaders that voted for H.R. 4038 Nov. 19, 47 were Democrats and among them were Representatives Ami Bera and Tulsi Gabbard, two members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Eleven of the remaining 12 voting members of the caucus, except for Rep. Mark Takai who did not vote since he is recovering from surgery, voted against the bill.
Rep. Judy Chu, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said in a statement, “we are reminded of our own need to ensure the safety of our cities and people. But this bill is not the solution. We must stop using fear tactics as a means to enact bad policy.”
Chu argued that the policies currently in place are among the strictest in the world.
“It would be wrong from a moral and a security standpoint to abandon them in refugee camps where they are subject to violence or radicalization. I agree that we need a serious plan to confront the threat of ISIS, but that should not begin with attacks on frightened and vulnerable women and children. Closing our borders to refugees is a mistake and a violation of our country’s values.”
Bera said the bill does not close the door on refugees, but ensures they are screened and vetted. “The President said we have a pretty robust vetting process. Let’s just take it one step further and have the FBI sign off and let folks know that these refugees don’t pose a threat,” Bera said in a Nov. 24 interview with Fox 40. “It’s not about not taking refugees, we’re a compassionate nation. We just want to make sure the most vulnerable are the ones we’re taking.”
In an open letter published Nov. 19 by her office, Gabbard said the safety of Americans must also be considered along with the need to take in refugees. “It would be a double disaster if someone who came to America as a refugee ended up engaging in a terrorist act. First, it would cost the lives of innocent Americans. Second, it could lead to the complete shutdown of our refugee program for a long, long time,” she wrote. Gabbard cited the arrest of two al-Qaeda terrorists in 2009 who posed as refugees in Kentucky. Their arrest shut down the refugee program for Iraqis for six months following their arrest, according to Gabbard.
She said she was initially willing to “give the benefit of the doubt,” but changed her mind when she did not hear any compelling reasons against why she should vote against the bill. “If this bill comes before the House again … and the Administration can come up with a better argument than, ‘We’ll have to increase staff,’ I will listen with an open mind and consider voting to uphold the President’s veto,” she wrote. “But ‘lack of staff’ is not a legitimate reason for them to refuse certifying that the refugee vetting process is thorough and complete.”
While the bill calls for a more thorough vetting, some say refugees undergo enough scrutiny. “The process to admit a Syrian refugee already takes about two years on average and delaying this process any longer will cause a virtual moratorium on their admittance,” said Vicky Shu, OCA vice president of public affairs. “This legislation relies on the great misconception that those who wish to do our country harm are sneaking in alongside real refugees. Of the 750,000 refugees admitted to our country since 9/11, only three have been arrested on terrorism charges, and none with credible plots to do our nation harm.”
The AAJC said in another statement that Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian individuals face “an even more rigorous standard in terms of the United States’ immigration practices.” Moua, stressed “(t)hese attempts to shut out Syrian refugees are based on fear and prejudice, not legitimate concerns of national security.”
Moua, a political refugee herself according to AAJC, insisted that Americans should “open their hearts and recognize that refugees are no burden, but in fact, have made and continue to make America better and stronger.”
The bill, currently in the Democrat-controlled Senate, will either be defeated, or pass and go to Obama, who pledged to veto it. The Hill reported Dec. 1 that the bill may be placed within an omnibus spending measure, threatening a government shutdown if it does not pass by Dec. 11.