Last week, Roanoke Mayor David Bowers ignited controversy when he opposed the settlement of Syrian refugees in part of Virginia by drawing a comparison to World War II that justified the Japanese internment. Bowers wrote, “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.”
Officials nationwide swiftly denounced Bowers’s remarks, and the mayor apologized two days later. The internment of 120,000 ethnic Japanese—two-thirds of whom were American citizens—has long been viewed as one of the most shameful episodes in American history, what the late Hawaii Sen. Robert “Spark” Matsunaga called “one great blot on the Constitution.”
The clamor over internment has abated, but suspicion toward refugees is palpable and rising. On Thursday, the House of Representatives voted across partisan lines to tighten screening for Syrian refugees. More than half of the nation’s governors oppose the settlement of Syrian refugees in their states. And according to a Bloomberg Politics national poll, 53 percent of Americans believe that the United States should suspend its program to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees. In the wake of the Paris terror attacks, a climate of distrust is gripping the country.
These jitters are all too reminiscent of the period after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. In late 1941 and early 1942, the traumatized nation feared that an invasion of the West Coast was imminent. The media stirred panic that ethnic Japanese were sabotaging facilities and passing intelligence to the enemy. Japanese immigrants—by law ineligible for citizenship—and their American-born children were identified as the enemy. In the name of national security, evacuating ethnic Japanese from the area made sense to too many.
Today, the world is reeling from ISIS’s indiscriminate terror in Paris. When Congress acts to restrict the small refugee influx and governors resist resettlement, they are equating refugees—many fleeing the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS—with terrorists and citing national security.
We must do everything in our power to resist this blanket stereotyping. In 1942, racial hysteria fueled the internment. Yet for all the prosecutions, not one case of espionage was ever uncovered. Xenophobia now spurs ethnic intolerance. Yet since the 9/11 attacks, according to the Migration Policy Institute, only three of 784,000 refugees have been arrested for terror activities.
It only takes one suicide bomber to inflict horror. True, but before we imagine the worst, we should pause to consider how immigrants and their families have regarded and contributed to the United States. History at a time of crisis can guide us.
Take Harry Fukuhara, for example. In 1942, the 22-year-old, American-born son of Japanese immigrants volunteered from an Arizona internment camp for the incipient Military Intelligence Service that was sending bilingual interpreters and translators to the Pacific. Owing to circumstances beyond their control, three of Harry’s brothers were in Japan. Harry realized that they were most likely in the Japanese army. His mother was in Hiroshima. Harry island-hopped the Pacific as a POW interrogator. On Aug. 6, 1945, he was in the Philippines, preparing to land in Japan, when the atomic bomb exploded over his ancestral city.
Harry and his family experienced heart-wrenching challenges, but his allegiance to the United States never faltered. He rose to become one of the first Japanese-American colonels in the U.S. Army in a career that spanned half a century. Recognized by both the United States and Japan as a bridge between cultures, he received the Order of the Rising Sun, third class, one of Japan’s most revered decorations, and the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service upon his retirement.
Six thousand Japanese-Americans would serve with the Military Intelligence Service during the war and Occupation of Japan. Many enlisted while imprisoned in 10 remote internment camps scattered across the nation’s interior. Some, like Harry, fought for their country when they had immediate family in Japan.
Thousands of others volunteered for the Europe-bound, segregated 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Formed to counter public antipathy of Japanese-Americans, the 442nd became the most highly decorated unit of its size in American military history. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who lost his arm and was awarded the Medal of Honor for valor, served in the 442nd.
Colonel Fukuhara outlived his friends, Senators Matsunaga and Inouye. He died this year at 94 in Honolulu. In two weeks, the new headquarters of the 500th Military Intelligence Brigade at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii will be dedicated in his memory. A patriot, once suspected as the enemy, will be honored at a base strafed on Dec. 7, 1941, by planes zeroing in on the Wheeler Army Airfield, Pearl Harbor, and other targets.
Identifying Japanese immigrants and their children with the enemy proved downright wrong in during World War II. Confusing Syrian refugees with terrorists today is equally as misguided. Rejecting Syrian refugees damages our nation’s values, repudiates our immigrants and their children’s sacrifices, and tarnishes our noblest aspirations.
Pamela Rotner Sakamoto, Ph.D., is the author of Midnight in Broad Daylight: A Japanese American Family Caught Between Two Worlds, to be published by Harper on Jan. 5, 2016.