Concentrating on the Border

Whatever we decide to call the camps where we detain immigrants, they are already a disgrace to our nation. If we don’t do something, they will probably get worse.

This week America’s talking heads argued about a label: Should the places where the Trump administration is detaining immigrants be called “concentration camps”? Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used the term (she wasn’t the first), and then pundits inside the Fox News bubble began demanding she apologize: to Trump, to Jews, to history, and so on.

As so often happens, the perpetrator became the victim. The media hasn’t devoted nearly as much time to the real victims — the immigrants (many of them asylum-seekers who have followed the law and done nothing wrong) being herded into camps of dubious safety and hygiene — as they have to the Trumpists howling with outrage. Instead of “What is happening on the border?” our focus has been on “Is it fair to call them concentration camps?”

I will not get snarky about this, because Alexandra Petri has already done that very well. (“If we do not use the right words for this, we might think that something terrible was happening.”) But I will point out that we had a very similar debate (including some of the same people, i.e., Liz Cheney) during the Bush administration: Should “enhanced interrogation” techniques (water-boarding, beatings, stress positions, sleep deprivation, extreme heat and cold — sometimes resulting in death) count as torture. Instead of discussing exactly what our country was doing to people we had captured, we argued about a word. Those who felt injured by that word often got more sympathy than the people they were (or were not) torturing.

So what is happening on the border? To a large extent we don’t know. In part, this is why the cable news shows have focused on semantics: It’s easier to find talking heads willing to shout at each other about the proper use of words than to get solid information about how the U.S. is treating people who come here fleeing violence in their home countries.

The National Immigration Justice Center writes:

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is notoriously obscure about the systems it uses to detain immigrants in the United States. Without a court order, it is rare that DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) divulges any details about where its jails and prisons are located, who or how many people are held there, or any details about how they are managed — including how much taxpayers spend to keep them open, and who gets that money.

But at least we can get some population totals. The Detention Watch Network says:

The average daily population of detained immigrants increased from approximately 5,000 in 1994, to 19,000 in 2001, and to over 39,000 in 2017.

More recent estimates, presumably unofficial, place the detainee population at 52,000 and rising (despite a congressional limit of 45,000 and a goal of 40,000).

Is this explosive growth necessary? No. The number of people arriving at the border without visas has been high lately, but fundamentally that’s not the reason so many people are detained. Vox explains.

During [Trump’s] first week in office, he signed an executive order that declared nearly every unauthorized immigrant in the US a “priority” for deportation. (In practice, most of the people the Trump administration has chosen to detain have been immigrants with past criminal convictions or charges — though plenty of those charges aren’t serious enough to require mandatory detention under the law.) The executive order also removed some of ICE’s flexibility to decide which immigrants it was most important to keep in detention.

This, plus the rise in people coming into the US who can’t immediately be deported because they’re children or families, seeking asylum, or both, means Trump has pushed the detainee population to record highs.

But most of those asylum-seeking children and families don’t have to be detained either. In fact, routinely detaining asylum-seekers may be a violation of international law. The Just Security blog notes:

Crucially, international bodies have made clear that detention of asylum seekers must be a measure of last resort, not a default practice imposed automatically or as a broad rule for a large category of people.

Deterring asylum applicants or discouraging future migration is not a lawful basis for depriving an individual migrant of liberty, either under international law (see Detention Guidelines at para. 32) or under U.S. law (see the preliminary injunction issued in RILR v. Johnson).

The administration’s argument for detaining asylum-seekers rests on two dubious notions: (1) All unauthorized immigrants are threats to public safety; and (2) if asylum-seekers are released, they won’t show up for their hearings and will vanish into the immigrant underground.

The first is the baseless propaganda Trump has been pushing since he came down the escalator, and the second is provably false. Syracuse University’s TRAC Project (Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse) reports that families who are given legal counsel overwhelmingly do show up for their hearings.

TRAC found that with rare exception virtually every family attended their court hearings when they had representation. Appearance rates at the initial hearing were 99.9 percent. This is in contrast to appearance rates for unrepresented families of 81.6 percent.

Why does an attorney make a difference? Because confusion and miscommunication, not a desire to flout American law, are the main causes of missed hearings. It turns out that the same government that can’t find the kids it has stolen also has trouble delivering notifications to the right places.

When a family doesn’t show up, it does not necessarily mean they had intended to “skip” their hearing. Some immigrants who don’t appear simply have not received notification of their hearing. Others may receive a written notice, but the notice may have been in English which they couldn’t read.

In short, the “reasons” the administration gives are just pretexts. It detains a lot of immigrants because it wants to detain a lot of immigrants.

Deterrence. That last sentence sounds ridiculous, because why would the government want to create such a big headache for itself? The point of detaining tens of thousands of immigrants in unpleasant and unhealthy conditions, rather than letting them live and work in the US while they wait for their hearings, is to deter other foreigners from coming here. (Extra cash for the private prison industry is just a bonus.) So life should be harsh for those awaiting an asylum hearing, and the harsher the better.

Numerous government officials have talked about “deterrence”, and Trump himself promotes being “rough” or “tough” with asylum-seekers to the point of breaking the law. (“When you do these things we have to do,” he complained to Fox Business Network, “they end up arresting Border Patrol people.”)

This is the most important thing to understand about America’s immigrant detention camps: They’re supposed to be unpleasant. It’s not just that systems are overwhelmed (though they are) or that rogue employees misbehave (though they do). Mistreatment of these immigrants is intentional. We’re making an example of them in order to teach the oppressed people of the world a lesson: “Don’t come here, because we’ll be as nasty to you as we’re being to them.”

New information. Eventually, though, a few media outlets started getting past the AOC/Liz Cheney exchanges and giving us some new information about the camps.

This week, for example, we learned about conditions at the border station in Clint, Texas, where hundreds of children are being held.

Children as young as 7 and 8, many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears, are caring for infants they’ve just met, the lawyers said. Toddlers without diapers are relieving themselves in their pants. Teenage mothers are wearing clothes stained with breast milk.

Most of the young detainees have not been able to shower or wash their clothes since they arrived at the facility, those who visited said. They have no access to toothbrushes, toothpaste or soap.

This is not an oversight. In fact, government lawyers have argued in court that a previous court order that children be held in “safe and sanitary” conditions did not require that the government provide them with soap or toothbrushes, that they have beds to sleep on, or that they be given clean water or adequate quantities of food.

The government knows what it is doing. The cruelty is intentional.

Family separation. The crown jewel in the administration’s program of deterrence has been family separation, which sends the message: “Don’t come here, because we’ll take your kids away and lose them in our system.” That policy was an experiment for about a year, and then was rolled out nationally. Acting Assistant HHS Secretary Steven Wagner said:

We expect that the new policy will result in a deterrence effect, we certainly hope that parents stop bringing their kids on this dangerous journey and entering the country illegally. So we are prepared to continue to expand capacity as needed.

The Trump zero-tolerance policy meant that everyone who surrendered or was caught at the border would be detained. The system for processing asylum claims had an enormous backlog, but court rulings stipulated that minors couldn’t be held more than 20 days. So detaining the adults meant separating them from their children.

Mothers and fathers, most from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, went to jail on charges of misdemeanor illegal entry or felony re-entry. Their children were reclassified as “unaccompanied” and sent into a network of shelters scattered across the country

In all, more than 4,000 children were taken in this manner. Many were not tracked properly, and their parents had a difficult time finding them again once their cases were resolved. In April, the government was estimating it might take two years for some children to be returned.

If you doubt the cruelty of this policy, you should read two articles the New York Times published this week: One is about Baby Constantin, a four-month-old Romanian refugee taken when his father sought asylum for them at the Mexican border.

it would be months before his parents saw him again. Before then, his father would be sent for psychiatric evaluation in a Texas immigration detention center because he couldn’t stop crying; his mother would be hospitalized with hypertension from stress. Constantin would become attached to a middle-class American family, having spent the majority of his life in their tri-level house on a tree-lined street in rural Michigan, and then be sent home. Now more than a year and a half old, the baby still can’t walk on his own, and has not spoken.

His father fell victim to a scam that apparently has been played on a large number of asylum-seekers.

Two months into his detention, an immigration officer came to Mr. Mutu with an offer. As he understood it, if he gave up his claim for asylum, he would be deported back to Romania with Constantin. He agreed, and on June 3, 2018, he was released from his cell and loaded into a van.

He looked everywhere for Constantin and asked the officers where his son was, but was not given a clear answer. At the airport, he refused to board without the baby. The immigration officers, he said, told him that Constantin would be handed to him once he had taken his seat. But the plane lifted off and the baby never came.

In the second article, the same NYT reporter (Caitlin Dickerson) interviews a woman who helped care for Constantin: Alma Acevedo, a 24-year-old who worked for Bethany Christian Services, a foster care and adoption agency that has a federal contract to house immigrant children. It was her first job out of college.

Ms. Acevedo was just settling into the role when things suddenly became more chaotic, in the late summer of 2017. Unlike the teenagers she was used to working with, who had intentionally crossed the border alone, the separated children who began to arrive were inconsolable when they reached her. Each new one seemed to traumatize the rest all over again. “It was horrible,” she said. “We could not do work. It was just a classroom full of crying kids all day.”

… Most days after work, she cried in her car before she left the parking lot. She checked the news on her phone constantly, watching CNN until she went to bed, hoping to find out when the family separations would end.

But they ended, right? Not exactly. You can be forgiven for not knowing that, because a year ago, after a couple months of bad publicity, Trump signed an executive order that purported to end the policy, and a judge ordered that the children be returned.

But remember: The family separation policy didn’t come from nowhere. It came from a desire to be cruel to immigrants, in order to strike fear into the hearts of similar people planning to come here. None of that has changed. The administration separated families not because it needed to, but because it wanted to. It still wants to, and so it finds ways to do so.

Michele Goldberg reports:

To continue separating families, immigration agents appear to be taking advantage of a loophole in the court decision. The injunction doesn’t apply when parents have criminal histories or communicable diseases, which might require them to be quarantined away from their children. Nor does it explicitly apply when children are accompanied by relatives like siblings or grandparents rather than parents, unless those relatives are their legal guardians. And it permits family separation when a parent is deemed a danger to the child.

On the surface, these exceptions seem perfectly reasonable, particularly given the threat of human trafficking. But [Anthony] Enriquez, a lawyer [for Catholic Charities], said they “left a big gaping hole that the government is driving a truck straight through.”

“Criminal history” or “disease” didn’t have to be anything actually dangerous, because the government was looking for pretexts, not reasons.

For example, a 6-month-old was taken from his father because the father had a conviction for marijuana possession. Another dad lost his kid because he admitted to a conviction for driving with an expired license.

In some cases, the parents hadn’t been convicted of anything at all, but border agents claimed that they had gang affiliations. In other instances, agents stretched the definition of “communicable diseases” to apply to situations that don’t involve quarantine. …  Enriquez represented a child who was sent to New York after her mother was hospitalized for a leg injury in California. Even after the mother was discharged and released from immigration custody, Enriquez said, the government balked at returning her daughter to her until he threatened to sue.

But are they concentration camps? So OK. Now that we have discussed what our country is doing, maybe we can spare a little time to think about what to call it.

We have camps where we keep thousands of people who have done nothing wrong. We could just let them live normal lives while they wait for hearings, but instead we have made their lives unpleasant because that serves our purpose: It is supposed to intimidate other people out of coming here.

Should we call them concentration camps?

Letting that term roll out of our mouths seems like an awesome judgment, as perhaps it should. The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen (who has much experience with Russians balking at comparing Putin’s dictatorship to Stalin’s) explains:

We learn to think of history as something that has already happened, to other people. Our own moment, filled as it is with minutiae destined to be forgotten, always looks smaller in comparison. As for history, the greater the event, the more mythologized it becomes. Despite our best intentions, the myth becomes a caricature of sorts. Hitler, or Stalin, comes to look like a two-dimensional villain—someone whom contemporaries could not have seen as a human being. The Holocaust, or the Gulag, are such monstrous events that the very idea of rendering them in any sort of gray scale seems monstrous, too. This has the effect of making them, essentially, unimaginable. In crafting the story of something that should never have been allowed to happen, we forge the story of something that couldn’t possibly have happened. …

A logical fallacy becomes inevitable. If this can’t happen, then the thing that is happening is not it. What we see in real life, or at least on television, can’t possibly be the same monstrous phenomenon that we have collectively decided is unimaginable. … Anything that happens here and now is normalized, not solely through the moral failure of contemporaries but simply by virtue of actually existing.

But Anna Lind-Guzik, a self-described Jewish historian, says that we have to take the comparison seriously.

Applying the term “concentration camp” to the indefinite detention without trial of thousands of civilians in inhumane conditions — under armed guard and without adequate provisions or medical care — is not just appropriate, it’s necessary. Invoking the word does not demean the memory of the Holocaust. Instead, the lessons of the Holocaust will be lost if we refuse to engage with them.

It is true that the immigrant detention camps are not death camps, like Auschwitz or Dachau had become by 1945. But (as an excellent article in Esquire notes) the term concentration camp is older than the Nazis. Historian Jonathan Hyslop, author of The Invention of Concentration Camps attributes the idea to four sources, all in the late 19th or early 20th centuries: the Spanish in Cuba (during the Ten Years War), British in South Africa (Boer War), Germans in Southwest Africa, and Americans in the Philippines.

In each case, a colonial power was fighting guerrilla rebels who had considerable support from a widely dispersed population. “Concentrating” the rebels’ potential supporters in camps allowed the imperial soldiers to assume that any local they met outside the camps was an enemy.

These camps were not intended to be death camps. (Quite the opposite, they “protected” the population both from the rebels and from the empire’s own search-and-destroy missions.) But nonetheless, conditions were harsh and got harsher with time. Large numbers of people died.

Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, says:

There was very little in the way of targeted violence. Instead, people died from poor planning, overloaded facilities and unwillingness to reverse policy, even when it became apparent the policy wasn’t working, inability to get medical care to detainees, poor food quality, contagious diseases, showing up in an environment where it became almost impossible to get control of them.

The life cycle. Even the Nazi concentration camps did not become the death factories we now remember until late in their life cycle. When Dachau opened in 1933, it was a harsh prison for Hitler’s political enemies — at that time, mainly Communists, Social Democrats, and trade unionists. The longer it lasted, the harsher it became. Jews were sent there in large numbers after Kristallnacht in 1938. The Final Solution — the plan to exterminate all the Jews the Nazis could get their hands on — wasn’t formulated until 1941.

Our camps are early in their life cycle. It would be a mistake to imagine that they are already as bad as they will eventually get.

The people in these camps belong to a class (“illegal immigrants”) that our President routinely dehumanizes. Rather than human beings with human rights, or even refugees with recognized rights under our laws, they are regularly denigrated as “animals” or “invaders” or an “infestation“. When a Trump supporter yelled “Shoot them!” during a rally last month, Trump treated it as a joke (and the crowd cheered). Another recent Esquire article elaborates:

The demonization of The Other is a tale as old as America, but Donald Trump has returned the nation to dangerous places in 2019, questioning not just the Americanness, but the very humanity, of Hispanic immigrants and Muslims. He does so by attacking these groups’ violent outliers—the drug dealers and coyotes and ISIS—but these are the only examples of these groups he has ever discussed. There has never been one word about the Guatemalan mother who flees here with her child and works for decades cleaning somebody’s house. It’s only ever the murderers and rapists, and if they’re “invading” your country, any response is justified.

Our stated policy is to be cruel to these dehumanized people, in order to deter other people like them. We are gathering them into camps that are largely hidden from the general public.

It would be amazing if conditions there did not get worse. Caring people (like Alma Acevedo) are not going to want to work there, and such compassionate people who do work there will either harden or leave. Sadists, on the other hand, will be drawn there like flies to roadkill. Out of the public view, ordinary people will find themselves tempted to do incredible things, as ordinary American soldiers did at Abu Ghraib.

So should that count as a concentration camp? I can imagine an argument for saying no: We should reserve the term concentration camp for only the most extreme examples, the ones that are truly Auschwitz-like.

But at best, our own camps are proto-concentration-camps. They are on the concentration-camp spectrum, if still a great distance from the 1945 version of Auschwitz. But it is early in their life cycle, the trends are not good, and who knows how far we will let them go before their story is over.

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  • Guest  On June 24, 2019 at 1:56 pm

    Thanks for dedicating an entry to this topic, Doug, as we can’t shine enough light here. Newsweek (not exactly a socialist bastion) has a piece today that speaks to the academic support for AOC on this topic. If anything, Doug may have under-sold how unified the academic support, from historians and specialists in holocaust and Jewish history, appears to be.

    Hats off to AOC for keeping this issue front and center and for the courage to directly engage such abuses while providing a way forward. Chalk another one up for progressives being able to provide clear-eyed moral leadership. Very happy to see the Sift follow that lead here. Fingers crossed that republicans and their status-quo-oriented partners across the aisle are not far behind.

  • George Washington, Jr.  On June 24, 2019 at 9:53 pm

    The difference between a concentration camp and a death camp is one additional building.

  • Abby  On June 25, 2019 at 12:50 am

    Perhaps we can call them Andersonvilles.

  • James Collins  On June 25, 2019 at 12:49 pm

    Even IF these people were entering illegally, they would have the right to a speedy trial & competent counsel. Constitution guarantees against indefinite incarceration w/out trial, and against inhumane “punishment”.


  • By Unimaginable Reality | The Weekly Sift on June 24, 2019 at 11:05 am

    […] week’s featured post is “Concentrating on the Border“. The back-and-forth about whether to call immigrant internment camps “concentration […]

  • […] Source: Concentrating on the Border | The Weekly Sift […]

  • By Radicals | The Weekly Sift on July 22, 2019 at 11:17 am

    […] previous weeks, I’ve talked at some length about how concentration camps evolve, and compared our current […]

  • By Who Are Those Guys? | The Weekly Sift on July 20, 2020 at 11:24 am

    […] asylum seekers and unauthorized border-crossers qualify as “concentration camps”. (My opinion: Yes, as long as we remember that concentration camps are not always death camps. Concentration […]

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