A Colorado state lawmaker on Wednesday repeatedly appeared to defend the use of internment camps for Japanese Americans in World War II during a debate on a bill intended to “protect Colorado residents from federal government overreach.”
He later said his remarks had been misinterpreted.
House Bill 1230, also known as the Ralph Carr Freedom Defense Act, was introduced by Colorado House Democrats earlier this month to ensure the state “does not aid or assist any federal overreach that would set up a registry for Muslims or other religious groups, create internment camps, or attempt to identify individuals by their race, religion, nationality, or immigration status and ethnicity — all of which go against our American and Colorado values and our U.S. and state Constitutions,” said state Rep. Joe Salazar (D), a co-sponsor.
The bill is aimed squarely at the policies of President Trump, who throughout his campaign made frequent promises to ban Muslims and create a Muslim registry. It is named after former Colorado governor Ralph Carr — a Republican — who opposed President Franklin D. Roosevelt's order to create Japanese internment camps in the state.
The mass incarceration of as many as 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II is widely considered a shameful and unjust chapter in U.S. history.
However, during the bill's second hearing in the Colorado House of Representatives on Wednesday, Republican state Rep. Phil Covarrubias seemed to argue that the mass incarceration order was done “in the heat of combat” when there was “no time to ask questions.”
“We keep hearing about how things went down with the Japanese people. For anybody that has never been in the heat of combat, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and all of that was going on, there’s no time to ask questions and find out who's a citizen and who’s not,” Covarrubias said. “You don't have that moment in time. You need to regroup. It's easy to sit up here and say this stuff now. But if you're in that moment, it looks a lot different than being able to be in a nice suit and tie.”
He continued: “I hear people saying that we need to respect other people’s rights, and I agree with that, but what about them respecting our rights and our country and our laws? Because I'm not hearing that up here.”
Later on in the hearing, Covarrubias once again seemed to defend the mass internment of Japanese American citizens by pointing out that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. That attack, he said, was “what happened prior ... that kicked all this off.”
“I think we need to look at the Americans that are in fear from the terrorism and the things that we’ve seen over the last few years especially,” Covarrubias said. “Everybody's talking about the immigrants being in fear or the other people being in fear. What about our own people? What about Florida? What about San Bernardino? ... We need to take care of our home here and realize that we have plenty of our own citizens — citizens — that are in fear.”
His “them vs. our” arguments throughout the hearing appeared to ignore the fact that the majority of the people of Japanese descent forced into internment camps in the 1940s were U.S. citizens.
On Thursday, Covarrubias told The Washington Post that his comments were not meant to justify the use of Japanese American internment camps.
“I guess the point I was trying to make is that, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt's reaction to the attack was a wrong one,” he said. When asked to clarify his comments Wednesday — which seemed to indicate the opposite — Covarrubias spoke only in broad terms, saying “it's just a tough place to be with it all” and that “war is not a good place to be for any human to be in.”
Covarrubias said he addressed the matter on the House floor Thursday morning, but would not say if he had misspoken on Wednesday.
“I stick to the fact that, under no circumstances, regardless of who they are, should people be treated in the way that people were being treated during the World War II period,” Covarrubias said. “I had nothing to do with President Roosevelt's order. I'm sorry that that was a part of our history. That's the best I can say. I have to get to a meeting.”
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a law paying $20,000 in reparations to each living survivor of the mass internment; the checks were issued in 1991.
“A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories; neither can they fully convey our Nation's resolve to rectify injustice and to uphold the rights of individuals,” President George H.W. Bush wrote in formal letters of apology that accompanied the reparation checks. “We can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II.”
Covarrubias's remarks were swiftly condemned by the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus as "unacceptable."
"It’s outrageous that we have to keep reiterating that the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II was wrong," CAPAC Chair Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) said in a statement. "History doesn’t repeat itself because we forget. It repeats itself because apologists like Rep. Covarrubias attempt to convince us these atrocious actions were justified. Well they weren’t."
It was not the first time in recent months that the memory of Japanese internment camps has been resurrected. Shortly after the election last November, prominent Trump surrogate Carl Higbie came under fire after saying on Fox News that Japanese American internment was a “precedent” for a national Muslim registry.
Show host Megyn Kelly seemed alarmed.
“You can’t be citing Japanese internment camps as precedent for anything the president-elect is going to do,” she told Higbie then.
“Look, the president needs to protect America first,” Higbie told Kelly. “And if that means having people that are not protected under our Constitution have some sort of registry so we can understand — until we can identify the true threat and where it’s coming from, I support it.”
Higbie's remarks drew fire from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as well as from prominent public figures, including the actor George Takei, whose own family was interned when he was 5 years old.
“There is dangerous talk these days by those who have the ear of some at the highest levels of government,” Takei wrote in a guest column for The Post in November. “The internment was a dark chapter of American history, in which 120,000 people, including me and my family, lost our homes, our livelihoods, and our freedoms because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. Higbie speaks of the internment in the abstract, as a 'precedent' or a policy, ignoring the true human tragedy that occurred.”
The Ralph Carr Freedom Defense Act passed its second reading Wednesday. It must be approved on the Colorado House floor before moving to the Colorado Senate.
In introducing the bill, co-sponsor state Rep. Daneya Esgar (D) said in a statement that the state needed to learn from history.
“It was not that long ago that 7,318 Coloradans — mostly American citizens of Japanese descent — were forcibly imprisoned right here in our state,” Esgar said. “We cannot repeat that shameful period and we must reject any attempt to create a religious registry, create internment camps, or attempt to identify individuals by their race or ethnicity.”