At first glance, what happened on Tuesday was just an alarming slip of the tongue. Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs Tonight hosted Kris Kobach, Kansas’s former Secretary of State, who recently lost his state’s gubernatorial election. Kobach remains, for Republicans, a pace-setting luminary regarding undocumented immigration and voter suppression. He is currently a front-runner to become President Trump’s “immigration czar,” a newly announced position.
It was in this capacity that Dobbs invited Kobach to discuss his vision for American immigration. The former secretary’s past left no doubt that his plan would be draconian — Kobach has fought legal battles across the United States to prevent undocumented immigrants from securing in-state college-tuition rates, getting jobs, and renting homes. But that seemed reserved compared to his assertion on Tuesday that those immigrants should be incarcerated in a “camp.” “Instead of selling [the thousands of empty mobile home trailers that the United States owns], deploy them to the border cities, and create processing towns that are confined,” Kobach said. “We process them right there, in that camp, where they have the three square meals, they’re living in a nice mobile home, and then as soon as they’re done … they’re on the next plane back home.”
As rosy a picture as Kobach is trying to paint of what is essentially a jail masquerading as a trailer park, the word “camp” has sinister connotations. It calls to mind the extermination camps that the Nazis used to imprison and kill millions of Jews across Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Less intuitive — but more damning for Americans who consider themselves fundamentally distinct from early-20th-century Germans — are its similarities to the U.S. government’s internment of Japanese-Americans around the same time. Internment camps have become synonymous with governments robbing people of their rights, property, and lives. That Kobach would draw such a parallel so casually on national TV seemed ill-advised, at best. It may have even seemed like a gaffe.
The irony is that Kobach’s remarks, particularly his use of the word “camp,” are an unusually blunt articulation of already-existing practices. By definition, internment camps are used to house large groups of people deemed by the government to be dangerous, but whose alleged crimes are often arbitrary or contingent upon their ethnicity or nationality. The Trump administration’s may not fit this definition precisely. But they do come uncomfortably close.
Today in the U.S., such facilities have become stopover sites in the government’s mission to further criminalize undocumented immigrants, especially from Latin America. They represent efforts to punish more harshly than perhaps ever before the act of entering U.S. borders without the sanctioned paperwork, and then existing within those borders. Although crossing the border illegally has been a misdemeanor since 1965, the degree to which it is enforced — and the harshness of how it is punished — is traditionally a matter of federal discretion. Trump has chosen to prioritize the rapid arrest and deportation of these people, especially those arriving from Mexico and Central America, and including those already living in the U.S. The result is the heightened criminalization of the very state of being undocumented.
Where a person is categorized as illegal — as undocumented immigrants have been — they can more seamlessly be treated as if their existence is a crime. This practice has calcified over the past two decades, going back to the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Under Trump, it has been paired with louder and more focused xenophobic rhetoric against Hispanics, dramatically fewer options for legal entry for asylum seekers and refugees, accelerated arrests of people living in the U.S. undocumented, and the increased use of cruel punitive measures to deter future immigrants. Trump was not the first of these presidents to accelerate ICE raids and the separation of undocumented children from their families. But he was the first to make them policy.
As a result, thousands of immigrant children to date have been taken from their guardians and placed in cages under his orders. Some have died. Others have been lost in the foster care system. The centers used to incarcerate them and their parents have reached a bursting point. Overflow at brick-and-mortar detention facilities has led the government to increasingly lock detainees in outdoor “processing towns” and tent cities, such as the one under a bridge in El Paso, Texas, which sparked outrage last week. A Border Patrol spokesman has described them as temporary holding locations. “[They] have it all there,” spokesman Ramiro Cordero explained, touting the El Paso facility’s “blankets, food, bathroom facilities, water, snacks.” “If all of them wanted to sleep inside the tent, they would be able to. A lot of them choose not to for whatever reason.” Underlying these practices is the belief that incarceration and expulsion are the proper response to suffering. Trump has responded to people fleeing poverty and gang violence in Central America to seek refuge in the U.S. by giving them two options: Go home and die, or come to America and become a criminal.
It is in the interest of the Trump administration and its surrogates to sell its camps as luxurious. It obscures their basic inhumanity, and distances U.S. government practices from behavior that Americans have historically defined themselves against. It also casts the administration’s border crackdowns as reasonable. Considering the purported “invasion” threat they were designed to contain, such camps might be mistaken for a humane response. In reality, illegal border crossings have been declining for almost two decades. People crossing the U.S.-Mexico border comprise a secondary source of America’s undocumented population. For the seventh straight year, pre-approved visitors who overstayed their visas comprised 62 percent of newly undocumented residents. Immigrants — both documented and undocumented — commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans. They pay billions of dollars in taxes.
As with the internment camps of yore that repulse modern sensibilities, today’s camps are largely an outsize response to a fabricated threat. But their proliferation on Trump’s watch affirms another sobering reality: that they remain un-troubling to a large share of the population. Forty-two percent of those polled approve of the president’s approach to immigration enforcement, according to Gallup. In the past year, that support has not dipped below one-third. Said enforcement has included parents arrested while dropping their children off at school and placed in deportation proceedings. It has included children locked in cages and toddlers dying while incarcerated. The unavoidable conclusion is that the inhumanity on display is either acceptable, or worse, it is the point. For Kobach’s invocation of “camps” to register as a gaffe, it would need to be politically costly. But in a country where such camps have become the standard, it is almost quaint to believe that naming them — and even planning to build more of them — would be controversial at all.