KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Relatives of a civil rights attorney being honored posthumously this week with a Presidential Medal of Freedom for challenging the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II are alarmed by recent opposition to Syrian refugees resettling in the U.S.
Laurie Yasui, 64, of Kansas City, said her father, Minoru Yasui, would be "up on his soap box, stomping his feet and shaking his fist" because of the political response to the Paris attacks. She and other relatives will be at the White House on Tuesday when her father and 16 others, including baseball greats Willie Mays and the late Yogi Berra, are honored with the nation's highest civilian award.
Lawmakers and more than half of U.S. governors have raised questions about the vetting of Syrian refugees, with some expressing concerns that Islamic extremists may try to take advantage of the process to enter the country. Several governors have said they want to stop Syrian refugees from entering their states. And David Bowers, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, invoked the mass detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II in comments Wednesday about keeping Syrian refugees out of the region.
"I was just aghast," Laurie Yasui said, noting that Japanese internment has come to be viewed as a "dark moment in history." Bowers apologized Friday after calls for his resignation.
After Pearl Harbor, a fearful nation cracked down on Japanese-Americans and Yasui's law practice focused largely on helping them transfer assets and prepare for the internment camps. Yasui had wanted to fight for the U.S. but was rejected when he tried to enlist. Outraged, he deliberately violated a military curfew placed on Japanese-Americans and demanded to be arrested in 1942. He spent nine months in solitary confinement, with the Supreme Court ultimately ruling against him.
"The thing of it was, he loved this country," Laurie Yasui said. "He thought that this country was the greatest country on earth and made a point to say that this is the only country where you could stand up and object to the government and the president and be allowed to make that objection without being killed or destroyed."
In the years that followed the war, he crisscrossed the country demanding — ultimately successfully — that the U.S. pay reparations to former Japanese internees and their heirs. The nation also formally apologized for the forced internment, and when Yasui died in 1986 at the age of 70, he had successfully convinced a trial court to vacate his 1942 arrest. A case challenging the constitutionality of his conviction was pending before a federal appeals court.
"He would have been very proud to receive this," Laurie Yasui said of the medal. "I think it would have said volumes to him about the state of the union today that he is being recognized by the government that he fought so hard to defend."
But Chani Hawkins, his 31-year-old granddaughter, also of Kansas City, said the family's excitement is tempered by the nation's response to the Syrian refugees. She noted that after the internment camps closed, many states sought to keep the newly released Japanese-Americans from resettling within their borders. Yasui settled in Colorado, one of the few places where the former internees were welcomed.
"Again," Hawkins said, "we are at this kind of crossroad where fear and hysteria is playing into the decisions that are being made."