RICHMOND — The mayor of a small southwestern Virginia city apologized Friday for suggesting that Syrian refugees should be treated like the Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps during World War II.
“It’s just not in my heart to be racist or bigoted,” Roanoke Mayor David Bowers (D) said during an afternoon City Council meeting broadcast live on WDBJ. “My statement was intended to be respectful and measured in tone and substance, but it fell short obviously.”
Bowers offered the apology at the council meeting called to address the uproar over his comments earlier this week. More than two dozen citizens spoke, with many calling on him to resign but a few cheering him on.
“Go down to the public library and pick up a Koran and see what it tells Muslims to do to the infidel,” said one resident, who wore a camouflage cap emblazoned with an American flag patch. “The difference between a moderate and extremist is one’s holding a gun and one’s funding it. We don’t want it here.”
That remark received only a smattering of applause in the council chambers. Most residents bemoaned the damage that Bowers’s statement had done to Roanoke’s reputation as a progressive city.
Acknowledging calls for his resignation, Bowers said he wanted to spend the rest of his term working to unite the city. He is not running for reelection in 2016.
“I’ve worked hard for 16 years to be a friendly mayor to all the 105 nationalities in our city, and I want to continue to do so,” he said.
On Wednesday, Bowers wrote a letter requesting that all government and nongovernment organizations in the city of about 99,000 suspend any assistance to Syrian refugees “until these serious hostilities and atrocities end.”
As justification, he compared the situation to World War II.
“President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” he said, “and it appears that the threat of harm to America from ISIS [the Islamic State] now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”
It was not just Japanese foreign nationals but also Japanese American citizens who were put in camps during World War II. In 1988, the U.S. government officially apologized for the policy and paid $20,000 to each survivor of what was deemed the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” In the end, more than $1.6 billion was distributed in reparations.
As he offered his apology, Bowers made a special mea culpa to Americans of Japanese descent for his reference to the internment camps.
“Any such comparison was a mistake,” he said. “I apologize for this mistake. . . . No one else is to be blamed but me.”
But Bowers stood by his original rationale for writing the letter. Reading from a prepared statement, he reiterated his concern that Syrian refugees relocated to the United States pose a security threat.
“I issued a personal political view in a statement on the mayor’s office stationery on November 18, 2015, indicating that although Roanoke is a welcoming city and America is the melting pot of the world, I’d become very concerned in regards to the relocation of the Syrian refugees and the safety of Americans,” he said. “My position on this issue expressed in that statement remains the same today.”
Bowers said that he was shocked that his comments drew worldwide attention.
“I anticipated that the statement might receive some coverage in the Roanoke Valley, but I did not in any way anticipate that it would trend internationally over the Internet,” he said.