This is how fear mongering works. The year could be 1942 … or 2015.
“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 now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”
Those are the words of David Bowers, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia. The “sequester” he alludes to was the unjust and inhumane internment by the U.S. government of people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. It wasn’t just “foreign nationals” who suffered this treatment but citizens as well, including those born in our country.
Bowers’ historically vacuous statement was apparently his contribution to the current debate over whether the U.S. should follow through on its promise to accept refugees from the Syrian civil war. What he implies is that Syrian refugees are just as likely to do the bidding of the Islamic State as Japanese-Americans were to serve the war aims of Imperial Japan.
That drew shudders from the descendants and colleagues of a distinguished American by the name of Minoru Yasui. Yasui spent virtually all of his 70 years trying to get the U.S. government not only to apologize for but also to understand the injustice of having interned him and nearly 120,000 other people of Japanese ancestry during the war.
Yasui was born in Oregon. He had a law degree and had been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army’s Infantry Reserve. Nevertheless, he was kept in prison and internment for three years. The reason? His ancestry.
The Yasui family has worked for years to gain their patriarch justice. He was announced as a posthumous recipient the Presidential Medal of Freedom earlier this month. A few days later, the hysteria over the Syrian refugees reached a fevered pitch, inspiring Bower’s remarks.
“If Yasui was here, he would condemn what is happening,” said Peggy Nagae, a Portland attorney who served as the lead attorney in reopening the case of his conviction for breaking laws restricting Japanese-Americans.
She notes that a 1981 governmental report, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, determined that the internment was not justified by military necessity but a “grave injustice,” the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
No acts of espionage or sabotage were ever found among those interned. Yet the Japanese-Americans were thought to be waiting, plotting something really big against their own country.
Yasui purposefully broke a curfew, trying to mount a legal test. He spent nine months in solitary confinement while awaiting an appeal for disobeying an order for enemy aliens. The fight went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found the curfew constitutional as a wartime necessity.
Yasui was assigned to the Minidoka Relocation Camp in Idaho and later was sent to work in an ice plant.
After the war, he ended up in Denver, where he helped establish civil rights organizations and worked closely with African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. Yasui died in 1986.
And it wasn’t until nearly 50 years after the internment, in 1990, that the first checks of compensation for that act were issued by President George H.W. Bush. About $20,000 went to each internee.
For Nagae the parallels between Yasui’s era and the fears driving the politics today, especially after the Paris terrorist attacks, are stark. Her own father had also been interned and was befriended by Yasui.
“Fear is used to justify actions on the basis of military security and national security,” she said. “It’s an issue and conflict that doesn’t go away.”
Chani Hawkins, Yasui’s granddaughter, is working on a documentary film and other memorials to her grandfather’s life.
“We feel it is an important lesson that we must learn from as a country so similar mistakes are not repeated,” Hawkins said.
Apparently, many of us haven’t learned. More than half the nation’s governors have asserted that no Syrian refugee will be resettled in their state.
It’s a posture that won’t pass constitutional scrutiny — but also that makes little sense. The system of security checks for refugees is already rigorous, including vetting by counter-terrorism agencies. Yet a bipartisan House bill hurriedly passed last week would upend the complex security process already in place for judging refugee applications.
“Race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” Let’s remember those words — and make sure they play no part in how we respond to the Syrian refugee crisis.
(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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Photo: Dust storm at Manzanar War Relocation Center. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration via Wikicommons)