The discussion about the plight of Syrian refugees has taken a dark turn in the wake of the Paris attacks.
Nowhere was this truer than in Roanoke, Virginia, where last week Mayor David Bowers attempted to justify restricting assistance to Syrian refugees in his city by referencing the alleged need to incarcerate Japanese Americans during World War II.
Unlike most Americans, who, like former President George H.W. Bush, have recognized the incarceration of Japanese Americans to be “a great injustice” that should “never be repeated,” Mayor Bowers appears to be driven by the same fear and ignorance that led to the unjust detention and incarceration of individuals of Japanese descent.
As an immigrant, as a lawyer and as the president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, I understand how communities may be affected by prejudice and intolerance.
I also recognize the power of the law and the influence held by those who enforce and uphold the law — like Mayor Bowers. And with that influence comes the responsibility to act and speak carefully, judiciously and fairly, as well as the responsibility to recognize that words can have real consequences on the lives of people, particularly those who are vulnerable and in need of assistance.
As lawyers, we study and rely on precedent — cases and decisions made by lawyers and judges in the past. But to be truly effective advocates, we also must understand that courts and judges can make mistakes — as they did in the cases upholding the incarceration of Japanese Americans in the 1940s.
I am dismayed that many elected officials and policymakers have turned to the language of division and the politics of fear — employing rhetoric based not on substantive truths but on the ethnic, religious and national origin differences between us — to justify their policy positions.
When I hear words demonizing Muslims, Syrians and others seeking safe haven in America, I am reminded of the fear that led to the more than 120,000 Japanese Americans who were forced to leave their homes and livelihoods to be incarcerated in remote camps.
I am reminded of the fear that led the majority of Americans to oppose allowing Jewish refugees into the country as they fled from the atrocities of Nazi Germany. I am reminded of the fear that led to hundreds of attacks on Arab, Muslim, Sikh and South Asian communities in the aftermath of 9/11. I am reminded of a history that we never want to see repeated.
Our country has recognized the stain that such prejudice leaves on our nation’s moral fabric. In 1988, the U.S. Congress apologized for the incarceration of Japanese Americans and authorized reparations for those who had been detained.
Former President Ronald Reagan, in the remarks he made during the bill signing that authorized the apology and reparations, reminded the public of a statement he had made in December 1945 about the heroism of Japanese Americans on the battlefield, despite the incarceration of their families: “America stands unique in the world: the only country not founded on race but on a way, an ideal. Not in spite of but because of our polyglot background, we have had all the strength in the world. That is the American way.”
In 2011, the acting solicitor general apologized for the actions of his predecessor over half a century prior, who used the U.S. Supreme Court to defend the open discrimination and uphold the incarceration and convictions of those who took a stand against it. Two of those icons, Gordon Hirabayashi and Fred Korematsu, were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their efforts, and President Obama recently announced his intent to bestow the award on a third — Minoru Yasui.
Sadly, along with Mayor Bowers, more than half of the nation’s governors, members of Congress, and state and local lawmakers around the country have shown that many of the same prejudices that communities faced during World War II still exist today.
We must remind Mayor Bowers and others about the dangers of forgetting or rewriting history. We must refuse to act based on fear and intolerance. As history has shown, such actions do not make our country safer and they betray our deepest values as Americans. As a country, we have always learned from our mistakes in order to form a more perfect union, and we should continue to do so today.