When a Virginia mayor publicly disapproved of allowing Syrian refugees a chance at asylum in the United States, he did so by evoking the internment camps of World War II. Roanoke Mayor David Bowers mentioned that President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented the camps, but not what transpired following their closure. What Bowers said is a reminder that the United States cannot repeat history with Syrian refugees as the country's latest victims of discrimination.
In a statement that further reinforced his refusal to accept refugees into Roanoke, Bowers had this to say about the possibility of providing aid:
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.
The mayor's comments have outraged many and have come off as offensive and tone deaf. What Bowers failed to mention was that it was actually Japanese Americans, not foreign nationals, who were sequestered in the camps and that the country retroactively condemned the internment camps, even issuing reparations to those affected by them. Citizens lost their homes, were removed from their families, and had their entire way of life upended. This, sadly, isn't the first time the country has made a grave mistake in its treatment of citizens and refugees alike, especially when it comes to internment camps and relocation.
During the height of World War II, President Roosevelt authorized a series of acts that detained "enemy aliens," arresting not only Japanese Americans but also German Americans and Italian Americans, holding them in internment camps. Italian Americans — especially those in working class fields like the fishing industry — lost their livelihoods, including boats and other property. Families were forced to make the difficult decision to voluntarily move into internment camps to be with their relatives who may have been detained alone. The mistreatment of citizens was enough to compel the state of California to pass Resolution 95, which acknowledged and formally apologized to Italian American citizens for injustices brought against them in internment camps.
Likewise, German Americans were also forced into internment camps. Many of these proclaimed "enemy aliens" faced ambiguous trials that offered little evidence in terms of credibility, according to the National Archive. The program for Italian Americans, German Americans, and Japanese Americans spread all the way to Latin America. Following a 1942 conference in which the Emergency Advisory Committee for Political Defense was established, suspect citizens — many of whom were even born in the countries they resided in — faced similar discrimination. Repatriation programs were established as well, forcing citizens back to the country of their nationality and further fracturing families.
Japanese Americans were by far the largest population facing imprisonment in World War II internment camps. Over 110,000 citizens were forced into camps around the country: they were first moved to inhospitable holding centers, then to cramped living quarters where they were monitored nonstop. Though schools and additional services were set up in the camps, Japanese Americans faced an unwelcoming environment that was worlds away from their previous lives as free citizens. Citizens posed no threat to the country and were simply targeted because of their ethnicity. The 1988 Civil Liberties Act, which was signed by then-President Ronald Reagan, attempted to right that wrong by providing compensation as well as an apology to survivors of Japanese American internment camps.
Entire tribes of Native Americans were forced to relocate following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, in which Cherokees and others were moved to designated territories for the sake of the United States reaping the benefits of gold discovered in Georgia. Once again, internment camps played a factor during this relocation, with many Native Americans waiting in facilities before embarking on a dangerous, potential fatal journey at the behest of the U.S. government. Even then, many citizens noted that history would not look kindly upon the Native American removal. Pvt. John G. Burnett, a soldier involved in the operation, wrote that "future generations will read and condemn the act."