Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a bill 289-137 making it virtually impossible for Syrian refugees to get asylum in the United States and escape slaughter at the hands of ISIL.
Many of our parents and grandparents were German refugees seeking asylum in America while isolationists in America used the logic of fear to turned Jews away. If “Never Again” is not to be a mere slogan, the Jewish community needs to stand up against xenophobia.
American Security Against Foreign Enemies SAFE Act goes far beyond the already stringent screening process for refugees. (See graphic at the end of this article.) President Obama, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Director of the FBl all oppose this bill. Next week, this bill goes to the Senate.
Forty-seven House Democrats voted for the bill including local Democratic Rep. Donald Norcross (NJ) and 135 voted against. Of the 19 Jewish Representatives in the House, 16 stood up against fear, but Representatives Jared Polis (D-CO), Steve Israel (D-NY) and Lee Zeldin (R-NY) voted for the bill.
All House Republicans present voted for the bill with the exception of Reps. Walter Jones (NC) and Steve King (IA-4). Republican Rep. Steve Russell made an impassioned speech against the bill calling it a “xenophobic and knee-jerk policy” playing into the hands of ISIL. He even voted against the bill initially, but he changed his vote after being pressured by his Republican colleagues on the House floor in search of a veto-proof majority.
Meanwhile, some Governors and Mayors have taken matters into their own hands opposing any steps to welcome Syrian refugees. For example, Roanoke Mayor David 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 ISIL now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”
Actor George Takei, Star Trek’s Sulu, having been imprisoned for four years in an internment camp simply for being a Japanese American, responded to Mayor Bowers:
Earlier today, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, Mr. David A. Bowers, in the attached letter, joined several state governors in ordering that Syrian refugees not receive any government assistance, or be relocated to their jurisdiction. Apart from the lack of legal authority to do so (under the Refugee Act of 1980, only the President has authority to accept or deny refugees), his resort to fear-based tactics, and his galling lack of compassion for people fleeing these same terrorists, Mayor Bowers made the following startling statement:
“I’m reminded that 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.”
Mayor Bowers, there are a few key points of history you seem to have missed:
- The internment (not a “sequester”) was not of Japanese “foreign nationals,” but of Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens. I was one of them, and my family and I spent 4 years in prison camps because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. It is my life’s mission to never let such a thing happen again in America.
- There never was any proven incident of espionage or sabotage from the suspected “enemies” then, just as there has been no act of terrorism from any of the 1,854 Syrian refugees the U.S. already has accepted. We were judged based on who we looked like, and that is about as un-American as it gets.
- If you are attempting to compare the actual threat of harm from the 120,000 of us who were interned then to the Syrian situation now, the simple answer is this: There was no threat. We loved America. We were decent, honest, hard-working folks. Tens of thousands of lives were ruined, over nothing.
Mayor Bowers, one of the reasons I am telling our story on Broadway eight times a week in Allegiance is because of people like you. You who hold a position of authority and power, but you demonstrably have failed to learn the most basic of American civics or history lessons. So Mayor Bowers, I am officially inviting you to come see our show, as my personal guest. Perhaps you, too, will come away with more compassion and understanding.
The parallels between the 1940s and today are so strong that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum even issued a statement:
Acutely aware of the consequences to Jews who were unable to flee Nazism, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum looks with concern upon the current refugee crisis. While recognizing that security concerns must be fully addressed, we should not turn our backs on the thousands of legitimate refugees.
The Senate is expected to vote this week on the bill and many groups are encouraging their members to contact their senators.