Roanoke Mayor Apologizes for Internment Remarks

The mayor of Roanoke, Va., has apologized after a barrage of criticism for suggesting that the U.S. should treat Syrian refugees the same way it treated Japanese Americans during World War II.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, several governors have told President Obama that their states will not accept refugees from Syria because some of them could be terrorists in disguise. Mayor David Bowers, a Democrat, added his voice to the debate on Wednesday with a statement on city stationery that read, in part:

“… Since the recent terrorist bombing of the Russian airliner, the attacks in Paris and now with the murderous threats to our nation’s capital, I am convinced that it is presently imprudent to assist in the relocation of Syrian refugees to our part of Virginia.

“Thus, today, I’m requesting that all Roanoke Valley governments and non-governmental agencies suspend and delay any further Syrian refugee assistance until these serious hostilities and atrocities end, at the very least until regarded as under control by U.S. authorities, and normalcy is restored.


David Bowers

David Bowers


“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 is now just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.

“I further want to assure our citizens that … everything is and will be done to protect Roanokers from harm and danger from this present scourge upon the earth. In this regard, at least for a while into the future, it seems to be better safe than sorry.”

The Roanoke Times reported that Bowers issued a new statement, which stopped short of an apology, on Thursday: “I was thinking of the families of the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the threats to our nation’s capital city when I made that statement yesterday. My statement was intended to be respectful, measured and moderate in tone and substance. People here in Roanoke know that’s the way I try to handle things.

“I did not intend to offend anyone, but I did want to express my concerns about the current situation involving the safety of the American people.”

But in a meeting with the City Council on Friday, Bowers publicly apologized to Japanese Americans and said he did not expect his remarks to go viral, according to The Daily Beast.

WDBK7 quoted him as saying, “It’s just not in my heart to be racist or bigoted. I apologize to all those offended by my remarks. No one else is to blame but me.”

City Council’s Response

On Wednesday, five members of the Roanoke City Council called a press conference to repudiate Bowers’ remarks, according to WSET, the local ABC affiliate.

“To compare this situation as if that was a good decision just shows how little he knows about history,” Councilmember Ray Ferris said.

“We were stunned. I was stunned when I first saw the statement,” said Councilmember Sherman Lea. “I think it was inappropriate, badly written. The things that he said didn’t have to be said. It was hurtful.”

Vice Mayor David Trinkle commented, “Unfortunately, what happened today was a childish, juvenile way to try to bring a tragedy and world attention to somebody and to our city.”

Sam Rasoul, a Democratic member of the Virginia House of Delegates, said in a statement, “As the son of immigrants who are proud to call Roanoke home, I was shocked to see the mayor’s justification of his call to disallow Syrian refugees to Roanoke. The Japanese internment camps of World War II symbolize a dark time and low point in U.S. history. We should learn a lesson from such events rather than repeat them.”

BuzzFeed reported that Bowers has lost his spot on the Virginia Leadership Council for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as a result of his remarks.

“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,” said Josh Schwerin, a Clinton campaign spokesman.

ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastanaga said the internment was “a dark stain on America’s history that Mayor Bowers should learn from rather than seek to emulate.”

Virginia Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Swecker called the mayor’s comments “absolutely wrong.”

An anti-Bowers Facebook page, “Mayor Bowers Must Resign” — which states that Bowers “embarrassed the city of Roanoke with an unauthorized statement praising the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II” — has been established, along with a Change.org petition.

A pro-Bowers Facebook page, “We Support Mayor Bowers 100%,” applauds the mayor “for putting the safety of the people of Roanoke Valley first.”

Following are statements issued by Japanese American leaders and others familiar with the community’s history.

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside): “During World War II, my parents were imprisoned in internment camps for no crime but being Japanese American. The notion that the internment was in any way admirable is repulsive and wrong. The internment was un-American. So is refusing to offer a helping hand to victims of war when we have policies in place to keep our nation safe.”

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Pasadena), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus: “I absolutely condemn this comparison. Japanese internment was a dark chapter in American history — so un-American we later apologized for it. It is outrageous to let the same kind of xenophobia influence our policy today. If we do, we will only regret it again. We must stick to our values and not emulate the mistakes of the past.”

Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento): “Our first responsibility is to provide for the safety of our constituents. We know that there is much fear after the heinous attacks on the people of France. Fear can be understood, but fear-mongering has no place in the determination to make us safe. It only adds to more fear.

“I say this because of the outrageous remarks by the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, David A. Bowers, who pointed to the internment of Japanese Americans as a model for guarding against current international threats.

“During World War II, the decision to unjustly place U.S. citizens of Japanese descent into camps was grounded in fear. I was reassured when, in 1988 President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act to formally apologize to Japanese Americans who were victims of internment camps. In this time of uncertainty, I would hate to see us return to these fear-based reactionary practices that threatened the liberty of U.S. citizens.

“This kind of talk by Mr. Bowers is not the answer. As vulnerable families pursue asylum from the terror being waged in Syria and Iraq, I hope we will remain a model for the world. I want future generations to look back at this time and see that we stood for American values and helped those in need.

“I know that we can keep our country safe while also staying true to who we are as Americans. We all need to demonstrate compassion, not fear, as we face the challenges before us.”

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Santa Clara), CAPAC chair emeritus: “I was raised in an internment camp and know first-hand how that dark moment in our nation’s history led to repercussions that have resonated over the years. I am outraged by reports of elected officials calling for Syrian Americans to be rounded up and interned.

“We simply cannot let the extremist perpetrators of these hateful acts of violence drive us into such a misguided action. For it is when we allow these criminals to lead us down a dark path, away from our principles and ideals, that we as a country suffer.

“The Japanese and Japanese Americans interned after the bombing of Pearl Harbor was an outrage, as was turning away Jews at our borders who were fleeing German persecution. We cannot allow this to happen again and reverse the progress we have made in the last several decades.

“We look back, as a nation, and we know this was wrong. We look back and know, as defined by the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, that the internment was a result of ‘race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.’ We look back and know that an entire ethnicity was said to be, and ultimately considered, the enemy. We know that internment happened because few in Washington were brave enough to say ‘no.’

“We must now stand up and say ‘no’ to failed leadership and condemn the statements of Mayor Bowers of Roanoke, Tennessee state House GOP Caucus Chair (Glen) Casada, and Rhode Island State Sen. Elaine Morgan, who would make such ill-advised and backwards-thinking recommendations. They are perpetuating the messages of hate and fear that fly in the fact of what America stands for in the world.

“As we learn more about the complexity and the extent of the attacks on Paris, this tragedy continues to send shock waves through the world community. I am hopeful we will not allow our anger and outrage towards these terrorists and their cowardly attacks on civilians to turn us away from compassion and generosity.

“We need to find ways to help the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who are entering through our thorough screening and resettlement process now to find safe haven in the United States. As a world leader, we need to help these people escape from the brutal ISIL regime – they are fleeing the very perpetrators of these senseless acts of violence.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii): “The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II remains a civil rights atrocity — one that our country has apologized for and vowed