Monday, November 23, 2015

Can We Do Better This Time?

JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Lecturer-in-Law & Associate Director, Human Rights in the U.S. Project, Human Rights Institute, Columbia Law School

Across Europe, countries are deciding how to respond to the current humanitarian refugee crisis and balance that response with concerns of safety and security (or not).  As Martha Davis reported here, in Sweden, history is playing an important role in shaping the response.

In the U.S., we face some of the same challenges.  It is impossible to deny the overwhelming sense that nowhere is safe.  But the quest for safety and security should not be driven only by fear.  As the NY Times Editorial Board wrote on Wednesday

It is impossible to prevent all violence by hate-filled sociopaths and ideologues who are willing to die, and confronting the extremist threat from ISIS and other terrorist groups will require many strategies. But none of them require demolishing the values that are the heart of democratic societies, including the free flow of people and information. Banning all refugees, as some in America and Europe are demanding, would be an ineffective and tragic capitulation to fear. Governments should improve border controls and vigilance, but expanding wiretapping and other surveillance in free societies must be resisted.

This is a sentiment echoed by many, including Washington Governor Jay Inslee, one of the few state governors who has publicly committed to welcoming Syrian refugees.  Thirty one governors have threatened to exclude Syrian refugees (the legality of this gubernatorial action is debunked here and here).

In an NPR interview Governor Inslee discussed his attempt to do better than the U.S. has done in the past.  In 1942, two months after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued an executive order that set the stage for the forced relocation and internment of more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry. This broad and overzealous response was motivated by concerns about safety and security married with fear, as well as misunderstanding, racism, and discrimination.

The Supreme Court’s Korematsu decision, which ruled that the exclusion and internment of Japanese American was constitutional, has never been overturned.  Yet the Federal government has renounced its actions and the decision.  In 1988, the United States, under President Reagan enacted the Civil Liberties Act.  The Act offered a much needed apology, as well as reparations for individual survivors of internment.  It also stated that the actions taken by the United States constituted “a grave injustice.”  And further, that the U.S. response was “motivated by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership."

But in this time of deep polarization and politicization, there is not even consensus on lessons to be drawn from Japanese internment.  The same day as the Inslee interview, Mayor Bowers of Roanake, Virginia, cited the actions of President Roosevelt as justification to halt assistance to Syrian refugees in his city.  The Washington Post quickly offered its own critique of the Mayor’s position, as did a number of other news outlets.  With such disparate views of the past at play, it is hard to see the path forward.

In the days ahead, let us recall one fact:  overzealous, reactionary responses that are driven only by fear have a real human cost.  John Tateishi, who spent his childhood years in an internment camp, led efforts to secure redress for the victims of Japanese internment to ensure the same mistakes were not repeated in the future.  He drew inspiration from the Japanese saying kodomo no tame ni” (which translates to “for the sake of the children.”)

Certainly, the responses we choose today will impact not only us, but our children.


Note:  On Friday Mayor Bowers apologized for his remarks, after facing sharp criticism.

JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Refugees | Permalink


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