But Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) doesn't need the mayor of Roanoke to tell him what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II. When Honda was 9 months old, he and his family were shipped from California to Colorado to live behind barbed wire at the Granada Relocation Center -- internment camp -- in Amache, Colo. His family remained there from 1942 to 1945.
Honda had very specific thoughts about Bowers's statement. "It just shows how ignorant the guy is," he said.
When we spoke, shortly after Bowers's (D) statement was published, Honda took strong issue with the mayor's innocuous depiction of the internment. The program began in 1942 with the enactment of Executive Order 9066 a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The order mandated that people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast be moved further inland, out of fear that sympathizers among the group would take up arms or conduct sabotage. But Bowers got basic facts wrong.
"First of all, we weren't foreign nationals," Honda said. "Two-thirds were natural-born citizens and the rest couldn't become citizens because federal law prohibited us from becoming citizens." What's more, Honda noted, Bowers fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the program.
The government's restrictions began slowly, in Honda's telling. "There were a couple of incursions in our community by law enforcement," he said. "First they came and took things like radios or anything that looked like contraband. My grandfather -- they took his radio and they came back and took his guns. Then, he said, 'They're coming back again and they can't have my car!' He had a brand new pick-up. He lived on a levee of the Sacramento River. He took the tires off his pick-up truck and said, 'If I can't keep it, they can't have it!'"
His grandfather was sent to Tulelake, a camp in northern California used to house actual Japanese-American dissidents and some prisoners of war. Honda's parents were sent to Amache -- but were still expected to do their part for the war effort.
"My father volunteered to be part of the group that taught Naval Intelligence the Japanese language, because when they incarcerated other Japanese, they found out that they had no one who could listen to their communication," Honda said. "They had other Japanese Americans who were incarcerated, and engaged them in the fighting overseas in the South Pacific."
The situation caused "a lot of turmoil" among the residents, Honda said, given the contrast between being forced to move and being asked to give. "We need to prove our loyalty by giving our blood," some argued, in Honda's telling, while others argued, "We need to prove our loyalty by saying we won't be drafted until you release our parents from this unconstitutional incarceration." (Honda, of course, was too young to participate in these conversations directly.)
Four decades after the camps were closed and the war was won, President Ronald Reagan signed H.R. 442, which was meant to "acknowledge the fundamental injustice" of the internments and to "apologize on behalf of the people of the United States."
"We were able to get the country to recognize that what led to the incarceration was three things: Racial prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership," Honda said.
Honda cited congressional testimony by Earl Warren, then California's attorney general, shortly before the program was enacted. Asked why he considered Japanese Americans a threat despite the lack of any sabotage, Warren replied that, in his opinion, "this is the most ominous sign in our whole situation. ... I believe that we are just being lulled into a false sense of security and that the only reason we haven’t had a disaster in California is because it has been timed for a different date."
One reading of the comment is that Warren -- eventually chief justice of the Supreme Court -- was irrationally suggesting that a lack of activity was evidence that the Japanese couldn't be trusted. Or, worse: Warren was simply playing politics. As Honda put it, "Even Earl Warren, who today is considered a top civil rights jurist, had, at that time, political comments he wanted to make."
That resonates with Honda now. "The bottom line for me is that the failure of political leadership is what we have to talk about," he said. Pointing out America's past mistakes -- history being doomed to repeat itself, and so on -- is critical to "quieting the fears" of the moment.
"That's what makes this country so great: In the face of this kind of peril -- terror, tragedy and disruption -- that we remain calm and anchored to our Constitution," Honda said. "That's what makes us so different."
Honda represents a chunk of the South San Francisco Bay, home to Silicon Valley. And he closed with a reminder of why accepting refugees could be valuable.
"I think we need to open our doors to these refugees," he said. "Who knows! There may be another Einstein in that population," he said. Or: "Another Steve Jobs."