PROVO A powerful Democratic congressman forced by the U.S. government to live in a World War II Japanese internment camp in Colorado while he was a boy attacked a Republican congressional nominee from Utah on Friday for suggesting that undocumented immigrants should be detained in tent cities.
House Senior Whip and California Rep. Mike Honda scolded Jason Chaffetz, the Republican nominee for Utah's 3rd Congressional District seat, in a strongly worded press release.
"Jason Chaffetz's comments are more than just offensive and embarrassing to all Americans," Honda said, "they demonstrate a blatant disregard of the need to be vigilant in remembering the lessons learned from a disgraceful chapter in U.S. history."
Chaffetz bristled at Honda's broadside and demanded an apology from the congressman, saying it was Honda who introduced race into a debate in which Chaffetz believes he has adopted a bipartisan approach supported by the Democratic governors of New Mexico and Arizona.
Honda, 67, called the detainment of Japanese-Americans during World War II one of the most shameful periods in American history and pointed out that 9,000 detainees were held in Utah, in the Topaz War Relocation Camps near Delta.
"Today," he said, "66 years after the executive order was signed to intern over 100,000 Japanese-Americans, Utah congressional candidate Jason Chaffetz's call to create 'tent cities' to detain immigrants conjures images and memories that many Americans, including myself, find painful."
Americans should know that "immigrant" is not a dirty word, Honda added, saying "Mr. Chaffetz's comments serve only to fuel resentment towards targeted ethnic groups. ... It appears he has intentionally used intolerance to promote his own political agenda, rather than engage in a real debate about immigration."
Chaffetz called Honda's attack an outgrowth of what he said is misinformation spread by Bennion Spencer, the Democrat running against Chaffetz this fall.
Spencer doesn't know Honda and hasn't spoken with him, but he said the immigration debate that has dominated Utah's 3rd District elections for five years is a national story after The Associated Press recently picked up a local story about Chaffetz and Spencer.
"I've spent the last two weeks defending Utah on radio stations and to newspapers in California, Arizona and Colorado," Spencer said. "They want to know where the outrage is. I say, trust me, this does not reflect the view of the majority of Utahns."
He claimed Chaffetz's proposal would lead to racial profiling.
"This is downright offensive, when you talk about rounding people up, tent cities, deportations," Spencer said. "It's an extreme position, it will not work, it's extremely offensive, and it's an embarrassment."
"Enforcing immigration law in this country has nothing to do with ethnicity and everything to do with enforcing the law," Chaffetz said. "The plan I advocate for creating detention facilities in the Western United States was a call by the Western Governors Association."
In 2007, Homeland Security reported that 280,000 illegal immigrants apprehended in the previous three years were released because of inadequate facilities. In response, the WGA proposed construction of regional correctional facilities, paid for by the federal government, to hold immigrants convicted of crimes. The governors include Democrats Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Bill Richardson New Mexico.
"I think if they fully understood it," Chaffetz said, "the fact I'm concurring with Bill Richardson and Janet Napolitano would probably give most Democrats pause rather than lead them to suggest it's racially motivated."
Chaffetz did go a step farther than the governors, suggesting tent cities surrounded by barbed wire. He said during debates for the Republican nomination that the idea came from Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose tent facilities are a lightning rod in the immigration debate.
Chaffetz praised Arpaio for cutting costs "dramatically."
"I added the part about adding military-style tent facilities," Chaffetz said of his endorsement of the WGA plan, "but the concept of building detention facilities came from the governors."
He wants Honda to apologize because he said the California congressman insinuated that Chaffetz's plans are based on ethnicity.
"That simply is not the case," Chaffetz said. "It infuriates me that someone suggest this is based on ethnicity. That's absolutely wrong.
"That dreadful part of our history was wrong. It was based purely on ethnicity. But immigration crosses all bounds. There's no country that is exempt. This is a major crisis in this country. We're dealing with tens of millions of people here illegally. I'm just asking to enforce the law. When the Western governors are crying out for someone in Washington to listen to them, I'm listening to them, and I want to go fight for them."
In 1988, Congress agreed to pay $20,000 to each surviving person who had been detained in internment camps. In 2004, a unanimous Congress approved a National Day of Remembrance for the Japanese, German and Italian communities detained in the United States during World War II.Honda is the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and represents California's District 15, which includes Silicon Valley and a diverse constituency.
E-mail: [email protected]