The small, southwestern Virginia city of Roanoke should refuse to help settle Syrian refugees in the U.S. just as Franklin Delano Roosevelt interned Japanese Americans in America during World War II.
That’s the argument being made by Roanoke’s Democratic mayor, David Bowers. In a statement Wednesday, he said he was requesting that all government and non-government organizations in the city of 99,000 suspend any assistance to Syrian refugees “until these serious hostilities and atrocities end.”
As justification, he compared the situation to World War II.
“President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” he said, “and it appears that the threat of harm to America from ISIS now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”
In fact, it was not just Japanese foreign nationals but Japanese American citizens who were put in camps during World War II. In 1988, the U.S. government officially apologized for the policy and paid $20,000 to each survivor of what was deemed the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” In the end more than $1.6 billion was distributed in reparations.
The mayor did not immediately return a request for comment.
“I think most Americans with the benefit of history realize that interning Japanese-Americans for years during World War II was not appropriate,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) in an interview with MSNBC.
Bowers’s stance is also at odds with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who has said his state will continue to accept refugees. Across the country, several mayors have also said they would welcome Syrians — often going against the governors of their states.
“What the hell did he say that for?” wondered state Sen. John S. Edwards (D), who represents Roanoke. “I’m surprised; I’m with the governor and the president on this.”
Republicans in the state legislature have challenged McAuliffe, saying they will they file legislation urging McAuliffe to refuse to allow Syrian refugees to resettle in Virginia for two years.
But Virginia Republican Party Chairman John Whitbeck called Bowers’s comments “offensive and ignorant,” while endorsing a “pause” in the refugee program. “A pause in accepting refugees is prudence,” he said. “Internment was a gross historical injustice. There is no comparison.”
Bowers, a lawyer, is not planning to run for reelection in 2016. Vice Mayor David Trinkle, who is running to replace him, distanced himself from Bowers. He released his own statement, calling the World War II comparison in particular “unfortunate.”
“This is not how Roanoke feels,” Trinkle said in a statement. “It’s just the opinion of the mayor, sending that out unbeknownst to any of the city leaders. ... We are a very warm and inclusive community and the community is up in arms about his statement.”
He also emphasized that the mayor, who is only one member of a seven-person council that hires a city manager, does not have the power to halt any assistance to refugees.
Democratic Party of Virginia Chairwoman Susan Swecker likewise called Bowers “absolutely wrong” and said the party did not stand by his statement.
The Virginia American Civil Liberties Union also condemned Bowers’s statement, labeling the request to withhold aid “a call to violate the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
Bowers was first elected mayor in 1993 but was defeated after two terms by Republican Ralph Smith. In 2008 he ran again as an independent and defeated a Democratic incumbent. Bowers rejoined the Democratic party a year later.
Until Tuesday, Bowers was on presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s Virginia leadership council, but is no longer involved, according to a campaign official.
“The internment of people of Japanese descent is a dark cloud on our nation’s history and to suggest that it is anything but a horrible moment in our past is outrageous,” Clinton spokesman Josh Schwerin said.
Twenty-four Syrian refugees have been settled in Virginia since the start of the civil war, including 11 since January, according to State Department data.