Calling Them Camps

Image: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Image: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The United States government, under direction from President Trump, plans to house 1,400 undocumented and unaccompanied children  at the Fort Sill army base in Oklahoma in response to the current “immigration crisis”. This is not the first time that Fort Sill has been used to house migrant children; in 2014 the Obama administration held several thousand immigrant children at Fort Sill. Prior to that, the base once housed 700 Japanese-Americans in the 1940s Japanese Internment Camps

Currently, however, the treatment of immigrant children and adults is under scrutiny. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operates about 200 facilities referred to as “migrant detention centers”. The detention centers are poorly equipped and stretched dangerously thin. The ICE now detains more than 52,000 people across their facilities. So far, 24 people have died in the migrant shelters, and six children have died in the care of other agencies since September. Due to these deaths, and reports of unsanitary conditions in the detainment centers, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated in an Instagram livestream that the centers are “concentration camps”. She also called for action to help those at the border under the motto “never again”. In response, representative Liz Cheney quoted Ocasio-Cortez in a Tweet, stating that “6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust,” and Ocasio-Cortez needed to educate herself on the issue. 

Although Ocasio-Cortez’s comment is controversial, it has been widely supported by experts. Definitionally, a concentration camp is “a place in which large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities” according to the Oxford Dictionary. A death camp, however, is defined as “a prison camp for political prisoners or prisoners of war in which many die from poor conditions and treatment”. Even though these terms are similar and both have strong associations Nazi camps in Germany, they are not the same. 

There is a strong link between the condition of US migrant detention centers and the definition of concentration camps: the government is housing large numbers of persecuted minorities in small and unsanitary facilities. The facilities have seen several deaths among adults and minors, but this number of deaths in no way qualifies the facilities as death camps. Thus, Ocasio-Cortez’s statements were definitionally correct. 

Yet there is further controversy surrounding the connotation of concentration camps. Many have stated that the mental association between “concentration camps” and the Holocaust are unavoidable, and were intentionally referenced in Ocasio-Cortez’s statements. Despite these arguments, the term has been commonly used for centuries to describe detainment facilities of ethnic minorities. It has been used to refer to numerous conflict resulted camps, and so the term cannot be solely associated with the Holocaust. Ocasio-Cortez has a valid argument that she did not intend to reference the camps of Nazi Germany. But intentional or not, many historians have stated that the association is accurate and correct.  

Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, contends that the US is operating a concentration camp system right now in response to a spike in immigration at the southern border. According to Newsweek, Amy Simon, Michigan State University's chair in Holocaust studies and European Jewish history, stated that Ocasio-Cortez was 'completely historically accurate' in her use of the phrase "concentration camp," and "purposefully [calls] up those particular images of inhumanity."

The Trump administration has been shown to delay both the intake and release of immigrants, leading to overcrowding in the detention facilities. Additionally, the migrant shelters of 2019 are markedly different from those of the Obama administration. During both immigration crises, unaccompanied migrant children have been housed at the Fort Sill army base, but the Obama administration ensured that the stay was short-term and sanitary. Currently, the centers are being used for indefinite terms of stay, in underfunded and overcrowded facilities. In comparison, the 2014 facilities  saw significant drops in detainee numbers after several months, which displayed the strong desire of the Obama administration to allocate migrants to their sponsors.

According to international and domestic law, those who present themselves at a border seeking asylum have a legal right to hearing. In the case of the United States immigrant influx, these refugees are most often fleeing from persecution, gang violence, and corruption in Central America. To deal with the influx, the Trump administration has built tent cities in Texas, new detainment facilities, and enacted new policies meant to deter asylum seekers. These rules often force migrants to wait on the southern side of the border for long periods of time. Migrants then attempt to cross the border illegally, and are thus unable to legally seek asylum.  

Anti-immigration rhetoric and policies are aimed at dehumanizing immigrants. The statements assert that immigrants are criminals and lack basic hygiene. Seeing how the vast majority of immigrants are attempting to escape crime rather than perpetrate it, these claims are factually incorrect. But the longer the immigrants are kept in facilities and are forced to go without basic hygiene; the more ground the Trump administration has to call these people “dirty criminals”. Thus beginning a positive feedback loop of verbal and physical dehumanization. 

These trends, though still in the beginning stages, directly coincide with the events leading up to the Holocaust. Thus, unfortunately, making Ocasio-Cortez’s references valid yet again.  

Many governmental and civilian groups have taken the increase in media attention at the border as a call to action and are now helping the immigrants with lawyer and humanitarian aid. Hopefully, these detention centers will be shut down by the protest of citizens and representatives alike. But it is worrying to think what would happen if the detention center crisis is not thoroughly addressed.