Following the horrific attacks in Paris, a parade of state and local officials across the country proclaimed that refugees are no longer welcome in their communities. Each of these statements is inherently offensive in that they vilify Syrian families, who are the victims of stomach-turning violence. But no proclamation was quite as insulting to me as the one made last by David Bowers, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia.
Mayor Bowers held up the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II as a model for how we should address the global refugee crisis. I never imagined having to explain that using racial bias to incarcerate and relocate more than 100,000 people, including my parents and grandparents, was a bad policy. But here we are.
In 1942, my family members were stripped of their possessions and their freedom because they looked like some of the people America was fighting. Excluding the mayor of Roanoke, this is universally viewed as one of the darkest chapters in our nation’s history. Many Japanese-Americans are still scarred by their extrajudicial internment. My parents have barely ever spoken of it.
Mr. Bowers’ comments are clearly contemptible. It’s easy to assail him with colorful adjectives, as many have. But it is far more difficult to grapple with the mentality his comments represent. Mr. Bowers may be alone in his assessment of Japanese internment, but he is not alone in his crippling fear of accepting refugees.
This week, the House voted to institute new refugee screening practices that will cause a temporary shutdown of our refugee resettlement program. This is a bill I opposed because our existing vetting system is rigorous and effective. All refugees, regardless of their origin, are subject to a robust screening process that takes roughly 18-24 months. Adding layers of bureaucracy will cripple the process without making us any safer.
In short, it prioritizes our fear over our compassion and common sense.
Few of the 289 men and women in the House who voted to pause our refugee program last week are zealots or radicals. Most are patriotic Americans who are genuinely frightened—as we all are—by an increasingly dangerous world. Here is the problem: President Franklin D. Roosevelt was also a scared, patriotic American when he ordered the incarceration and relocation of my mother and father. History teaches us that fear is never an excuse for discrimination or injustice.
The common thread through many of America’s worst moments is a lack of compassion for those of different races, nationalities, or religions. Our best moments come when we live up to our pledge of liberty and justice for all. Those two paths are rarely as illuminated as they are today.
For me, the choice is clear. The refugees deserve the compassion my parents never received. An America that can conquer its fear is an America prepared to lead the world against this new brand of profound evil.