A Virginia mayor apologized today for invoking the mass detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II in comments about keeping Syrian refugees out of the region.
Roanoke Mayor David Bowers called his comments "unwise and inappropriate" and said he plans to continue in office despite calls for him to resign.
In a statement Wednesday, Bowers cited the government’s internment of Japanese-Americans. He said the threat to the United States from the Islamic State group "is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then."
The U.S. government issued a formal apology more than four decades after World War II and paid reparations to former Japanese internees and their heirs.
At a special City Council meeting today, Bowers said the comparison was "a mistake." He apologized specifically to Japanese-Americans.
"It’s just not in my heart to be racist or bigoted," Bowers said. "My statement was intended to be respectful, measured and moderate in tone and substance. But it fell short obviously."
Bill Bestpitch and other council members criticized Bowers for using his office letterhead to issue Wednesday’s statement. Councilman Ray Ferris, who called the special meeting, said the council received the letter two hours after it was reported in the media.
"I think the press release demonstrates a lack of full understanding of some of the things that we have suffered in this country and certainly the things that were suffered by the Americans of Japanese descent back in World War II," Ferris said. "And that really seems to have been what has ignited this and started the ball rolling."
Two dozen members of the public later spoke at the meeting. Some called for Bowers to resign.
"Apologizing, while I appreciate it and I believe it is heartfelt, I feel that it is not enough," Jacob Smith said. "Apologizing is not taking responsibility. Action is taking responsibility."
Bowers’ comments Wednesday came in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks and the Oct. 31 bombing of a Russian airliner. They were part of his call to ask government and non-governmental agencies to suspend relocating Syrian refugees to the area. Islamic State militants have claimed responsibility for both attacks.
Individual states do not have the legal authority to block refugee placement.