migrant crisis

With Trump’s Migrant Camps, the History We Should Fear Repeating Is Our Own

Concentration camps are in the eye of the beholder? Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

On Monday, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told her Instagram followers that the White House is “running concentration camps” on our nation’s southern border — and that those who believe “ ‘Never again’ means something” must oppose Donald Trump’s “fascist presidency.”

Republicans, and many Jewish-American organizations, then excoriated the congresswoman for (supposedly) demeaning the memory of the 6 million Jews who “were exterminated in the Holocaust.”

Many tweets ensued. Academic definitions of concentration camp were screenshot and debated. A wide array of expert testimony was assembled: Historians of the Holocaust explained that Auschwitz wasn’t built in a day; a veteran who’d served at Abu Ghraib prison assured the public that the migrant detention centers could be worse. Conservative Christians who believe that all Jewry is destined for eternal hellfire told the grandchildren of Holocaust victims how they should feel about AOC’s Instagram presence. A liberal cable-news host suggested that the question of whether America’s migrant-detention centers fit an abstruse, academic definition of concentration camp was less important than the question of how Americans can liberate asylum seekers from the indisputably inhumane conditions they’re currently living under. He was denounced and “ratioed.”

Ultimately, Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks were thoroughly vindicated. And not merely because there is a serious, scholarly case for describing Donald Trump’s detention centers in her chosen terms. Even if her analogy weren’t defensible on the merits, it would be laudable in its proximate effect. On Monday, our government’s “zero-tolerance” policy toward asylum seekers barely registered at the periphery of the media’s gaze — which was fixed on the weightier matter of Harvard University’s zero-tolerance policy toward teenagers who use the N-word. Then Fox News’ favorite anti-heroine suggested that Trump’s border-enforcement policies shared a lineage with Nazism. The culture war moved to a new front. And for a few hours, America looked into its shadow.

At least 24 migrants have died in ICE custody since Donald Trump took office. At least five migrant children have perished in the custody of other immigration agencies over that same period. In a report condemning the “egregious” conditions at ICE facilities, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found 41 detainees living in a cell built for eight, and 155 occupying a room meant for 35. The people trapped in these rooms are largely asylum seekers who have not committed any criminal offense. The people trapped in these rooms stand on toilets to “gain breathing space, thus limiting access to the toilets.” While these detainees are subjected to torturous overcrowding, thousands of others suffer from torturous isolation. Solitary confinement is deployed so promiscuously in immigrant detention that being transgender or having a “bad leg” is enough to qualify a detainee for a form of punishment that the United Nations deems cruel and unusual. After extended periods in isolation, some mentally ill detainees have reportedly mutilated their own genitals. ICE’s health-services department is “severely dysfunctional,” and its employees’ negligence has resulted in multiple preventable deaths, according to ICE’s own internal memos. Thirty-seven children who had been separated from their parents were kept locked up in vans in a detention-center parking lot for up to 39 hours. Children kept in less blatantly unlawful confines recently lost access to classes, recreational activities, and legal aid, after the Trump administration ordered the cancellation of such services on budgetary grounds. There are nearly 50,000 people currently detained in ICE facilities, and that figure appears poised to “swell indefinitely.”

None of these facts are new. But AOC’s incendiary rhetoric made them newly visible. In doing so, the congresswoman steered progressives away from litigating Harvard’s admissions policies and toward identifying immigrants’-rights organizations that could use their financial support. This made her invocation of the Holocaust productive, no matter how many pseudo-philo-Semites it triggered.

Reasonable people can miss the resemblance between Auschwitz and Port Isabel.

Whether likening migrant-detention centers to Nazi concentration camps illuminates more than it obscures — on a substantive level — is a more debatable proposition. Ocasio-Cortez suggested Tuesday that she had not intended to draw such an analogy, noting that “concentration camps are not the same as death camps” and merely signify sites where “the mass detention of civilians without trial” takes place.

But whatever the phrase’s academic meaning, colloquially, in the 21st-century United States, “concentration camps” are more or less synonymous with the Final Solution. And if there was any ambiguity in AOC’s use of that term on Instagram, her invocation of “Never again” and her description of Trump as a “fascist” put it to rest. Moreover, it seems doubtful that the question of whether America’s migrant-detention centers are best understood as criminally mismanaged refugee camps — or as concentration camps — would attract strong feelings among nonspecialists were it not for the moral weight that the Holocaust lends to the latter term. The debate over “the semantics” of concentration camps is a debate over the relevance of the Holocaust to contemporary atrocities at the U.S.’s southern border.

The differences between Trump’s policies toward Central American asylum seekers and Hitler’s policies towards the Jews of Europe are too numerous and obvious to catalog. Reasonable people can therefore bristle at the analogy, at first blush, especially if they are not well versed in the conditions at ICE detention centers. Even those who aren’t ignorant of or indifferent to ICE’s malfeasance may question the association. The journalist Andrea Pitzer, and her book One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, have provided the intellectual basis for both AOC’s remarks and the left’s broader adoption of “concentration camps” as the proper term for migrant-detention centers. But Pitzer’s argument is more equivocal than many of its adherents suggest.

In a column for GQ, Pitzer writes of the detention centers, “If the [Trump] administration were focused on humanitarian issues, these facilities might have more in common with refugee camps,” but “[in] combination with miserable conditions on the ground and brutal acts by agents charged with enforcement, U.S. detention camps — which were already abysmal under several prior presidents — have evolved into a more dangerous entity.” Here, Pitzer frames the migrant-detention centers as a borderline case, their status as concentration camps hinging on the White House’s focus and on the sum total of recent developments. In any case, she also writes, “Nothing we are doing is likely to repeat Auschwitz, or to come anywhere close to it.”

None of this is to say that Americans shouldn’t regard Trump’s migrant-detention centers as concentration camps, or that the example of the Holocaust can’t usefully inform our understanding of this president’s immigration policies. I believe that we should, and that it can. But the truth of these claims is not self-evident or inarguable. And if progressives wish to convince the skeptical, they should not pretend otherwise.

The case for seeing migrant-detention centers as concentration camps.

Pitzer defines concentration camps as “the detention of civilians without trial based on group identity.” On a superficial level, migrant-detention centers may not appear to fit this description. The very presence of detained asylum seekers on U.S. soil is a testament to their receipt of due process; it is because our government recognizes their legal rights that Trump cannot summarily deport them (as he plainly wishes to do). Meanwhile, officially, these migrants are being detained because of their immigration status, not their group identity.

But viewed in the broader context of Trump’s presidency, Pitzer’s classification becomes eminently defensible. During the 2016 campaign, a conservative intellectual named Michael Anton argued that nothing less than America’s survival depended on the Republican nominee’s victory because “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.” Trump’s election would give traditional Americans their last, best chance to choke off that flow of foreigners and preserve their hard-won liberty.

The president has done everything in his power, and a few things outside of it, to confirm that this is his primary political project. Trump hired Anton as a senior White House adviser. He issued a travel ban that arbitrarily barred the residents of several Muslim-majority countries from visiting the U.S. He revoked the legal status of hundreds of thousands of longtime U.S. residents. In many cases, these immigrants had been in our country for decades. They had established families here, and businesses and houses of worship. Previous administrations — Democratic and Republican alike — had reflexively renewed their “Temporary Protected Status,” on the understanding that Congress would eventually pass comprehensive immigration reform and make them permanent residents. If Trump’s skepticism about mass immigration were rooted in concerns about assimilation or the “rule of law,” his treatment of TPS recipients would be incomprehensible. By contrast, if his restrictionism was rooted in concerns that “Third World” foreigners (a.k.a. immigrants from “shithole countries”) are eroding America’s white majority — and by extension the political supremacy of white America’s preferred political party — then his policy would make perfect sense.

And Trump has made the nature of his concerns abundantly clear. He has warned that nonwhite immigrants “strongly and violently changed” Europe’s culture — and that they threaten to do the same to America’s. He has accused the Democratic Party of helping illegal immigrants “infest our country” — because Democrats view these insectlike migrants as potential supporters. Last fall, he announced that a caravan of Central American asylum seekers was attempting to “invade” the United States — an invasion likely orchestrated by the Democratic Party, which hoped to steal the midterm elections by busing such “invaders” to the polls. The specter of the Democratic Party using “illegal immigrants” to secure control of the U.S. government has haunted Trump’s rhetoric from the earliest days of his presidency, when he suggested that such malfeasance was entirely responsible for Hillary Clinton’s apparent victory in the popular vote.

But the notion that nonwhite people pose an inherent, demographic threat to the GOP’s power is not peculiar to Trump personally. In recent weeks, we’ve learned that his administration pushed for the inclusion of a question about citizenship status on the U.S. Census because this would enable states to redraw district maps in a manner that would increase the political influence of “Non-Hispanic Whites.”

The administration’s official rationale for subjecting asylum seekers to extensive detention — instead of allowing them to stay with sponsors, church groups, or family members while they await their days in court — is that such a “catch and release” policy would enable mere economic migrants to abscond into the country. And such mass, unpunished illegal immigration would only inspire more migrants to abuse America’s asylum laws. But if ensuring compliance with asylum law were Trump’s sole concern, his administration could outfit migrants with ankle monitors rather than stuffing them into overcrowded holding cells. In truth, Trump is just as afraid of America’s asylum laws being faithfully upheld as he is of their being wantonly flouted. His administration has slashed refugee admissions for a reason. It does not want the United States to provide safe harbor to the displaced. The egregious conditions at migrant-detention centers are not the tragic consequences of a system taxed beyond its capacity. They are the products of a system working as designed.

We know now that Trump’s family-separation policy was conceived as a method of deterrence; which is to say, that our government separated small children from their parents (in some cases irrevocably) so as to dissuade other Central Americans from availing themselves of their legal right to seek escape from the homicidal gangs that effectively govern much of their native countries (a state of affairs that the U.S. government played a major role in bringing about). There is every reason to believe that the horrors at ICE’s detention facilities are similarly intended as deterrents. The president has encouraged U.S. soldiers to fire on asylum seekers at the slightest provocation and repeatedly suggested that shooting migrants may be the only effective means of keeping them out of our country. The inhumane conditions are a policy. The cruelty is the point.

Given all this, it seems reasonable to conclude that the Trump administration wishes to discourage Central Americans from seeking asylum in the United States because it perceives people with their group identity — which is to say, “Third World foreigners” — as a threat to America’s traditional “culture” and its party’s power. For this reason, Trump is needlessly detaining asylum seekers for the civil offense of crossing the southern border illegally (an offense that the administration may be tacitly encouraging by engineering slowdowns at legal ports of entry). Then, through a combination of negligence and malice, his administration is subjecting detainees to cruel and unusual punishment. Liberals should not elide the significant degree of overlap between Barack Obama and Donald Trump’s border-enforcement regimes. But far fewer migrants died in detention when Obama was in power. Immigrant-advocacy groups had a voice in Obama’s coalition, and eventually that voice was heard. What’s happening now is aberrantly malevolent.

For all the differences between the predicament of Europe’s Jews in the 1930s and Central American asylum seekers in 2019, there are also commonalities. In each case, governments demonized vulnerable out-groups, warehoused them in isolated camps, and deliberately subjected them to inhumane treatment to advance a racist conception of the national good. The potential benefit of highlighting these areas of overlap is obvious: Analogizing a contemporary injustice to a world-historic atrocity may help complacent Americans recognize the moral urgency of combating the former. By all appearances, AOC’s analogy has done precisely this.

The potential costs of eliding the discrepancies between Auschwitz and Port Isabel are harder to discern. Republicans accused Ocasio-Cortez of trivializing or belittling the suffering of Hitler’s victims. But no one honestly believes that the congresswoman likened migrant-detention centers to concentration camps because she wished to downplay the significance of the Final Solution. Rather, her remarks rest on the implication that the Holocaust was such an abominable crime that any injustice that even vaguely resembles it requires her constituents’ attention. Republicans are not offended by AOC’s sentiment because it trivializes Hitler’s crimes, but rather, because they wish to trivialize Trump’s.

The history we should fear repeating most is our own.

All this said, progressives shouldn’t need to invoke the Holocaust to place migrant-detention centers in their proper context. The border separating the United States from lands dominated by nonwhite peoples has been a site of white-nationlist violence since the founding of our republic. America’s southern border is itself an artifact of a war of conquest that our government launched against Mexico — an invasion that Ulysses S. Grant called “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” According to General Winfield Scott, commander of U.S. forces during that war, American troops committed atrocities against Mexican civilians so egregious they would “make Heaven weep, & every American, of Christian morals blush for his country. Murder, robbery, & rape on mothers & daughters, in the presence of the tied up males of the families, have been common along the Rio Grande.” In the decades that followed, Klansmen, citizen’s militias, and the uniformed officers of the Texas Rangers regularly lynched Latinos whom they regarded as invaders or threats to America’s racial order and purity. This is the history that Trumpism emerged from; these are the atrocities it threatens to repeat. Before Americans likened the violence at our borders to the Nazis, the Nazis likened their conquest of Eastern Europe to the violence at our frontiers.

We should take inspiration for resisting injustice from wherever we can find it. Nazism is one way to describe the force that robbed my grandmother of her parents and siblings when she was only 10 years old. Racial hatred is another. I believe that those who invoke the Holocaust to emphasize the moral urgency of aiding detained migrants don’t demean my grandmother’s suffering so much as redeem it.

But if Americans were willing to look unflinchingly into our own nation’s past, there’d be no need to import ominous analogies. The most illuminating precedents for our present crisis were born in the U.S.A.