by Jonathan M. Katz
If you were paying close attention last week, you might have spotted a pattern in the news. Peeking out from behind the breathless coverage of the Trump family’s tuxedoed trip to London was a spate of deaths of immigrants in U.S. custody: Johana Medina Léon, a 25-year-old transgender asylum seeker; an unnamed 33-year-old Salvadoran man; and a 40-year-old woman from Honduras.
Photos from a Border Patrol processing center in El Paso showed people herded so tightly into cells that they had to stand on toilets to breathe. Memos surfaced by journalist Ken Klippenstein revealed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s failure to provide medical care was responsible for suicides and other deaths of detainees. These followed another report that showed that thousands of detainees are being brutally held in isolation cells just for being transgender or mentally ill.
Also last week, the Trump administration cut funding for classes, recreation and legal aid at detention centers holding minors — which were likened to “summer camps” by a senior ICE official last year. And there was the revelation that months after being torn from their parents’ arms, 37 children were locked in vans for up to 39 hours in the parking lot of a detention center outside Port Isabel, Texas. In the last year, at least seven migrant children have died in federal custody..
Preventing mass outrage at a system like this takes work. Certainly it helps that the news media covers these horrors intermittently rather than as snowballing proof of a racist, lawless administration. But most of all, authorities prevail when the places where people are being tortured and left to die stay hidden, misleadingly named and far from prying eyes.
There’s a name for that kind of system. They’re called concentration camps. You might balk at my use of the term. That’s good — it’s something to be balked at.
The goal of concentration camps has always been to be ignored. The German-Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt, who was imprisoned by the Gestapo and interned in a French camp, wrote a few years afterward about the different levels of concentration camps. Extermination camps were the most extreme; others were just about getting “undesirable elements … out of the way.” All had one thing in common: “The human masses sealed off in them are treated as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them were no longer of interest to anybody, as if they were already dead.”
Euphemisms play a big role in that forgetting. The term “concentration camp” is itself a euphemism. It was invented by a Spanish official to paper over his relocation of millions of rural families into squalid garrison towns where they would starve during Cuba’s 1895 independence war. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Japanese Americans into prisons during World War II, he initially called them concentration camps. Americans ended up using more benign names, like “Manzanar Relocation Center.”
Even the Nazis’ camps started out small, housing criminals, Communists and opponents of the regime. It took five years to begin the mass detention of Jews. It took eight, and the outbreak of a world war, for the first extermination camps to open. Even then, the Nazis had to keep lying to distract attention, claiming Jews were merely being resettled to remote work sites. That’s what the famous signs — Arbeit Macht Frei, or “Work Sets You Free” — were about.
Subterfuge doesn’t always work. A year ago, Americans accidentally became aware that the Trump administration had adopted (and lied about) a policy of ripping families apart at the border. The flurry of attention was thanks to the viral conflation of two separate but related stories: the family-separation order and bureaucrats’ admission that they’d been unable to locate thousands of migrant children who’d been placed with sponsors after crossing the border alone.
Trump shoved that easily down the memory hole. He dragged his heels a bit, then agreed to a new policy: throwing whole families into camps together. Political reporters posed irrelevant questions, like whether President Obama had been just as bad, and what it meant for the midterms. Then they moved on.
It is important to note that Trump’s aides have built this system of racist terror on something that has existed for a long time. Several camps opened under Obama, and as president he deported millions of people.
But Trump’s game is different. It certainly isn’t about negotiating immigration reform with Congress. Trump has made it clear that he wants to stifle all non-white immigration, period. His mass arrests, iceboxes and dog cages are part of an explicitly nationalist project to put the country under the control of the right kind of white people.
As a Republican National Committee report noted in 2013: “The nation’s demographic changes add to the urgency of recognizing how precarious our position has become.” The Trump administration’s attempt to put a citizenship question on the 2020 census was also just revealed to have been a plot to disadvantage political opponents and boost “Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites” all along.
That’s why this isn’t just a crisis facing immigrants. When a leader puts people in camps to stay in power, history shows that he doesn’t usually stop with the first group he detains.
There are now at least 48,000 people detained in ICE facilities, which a former official told BuzzFeed News “could swell indefinitely.” Customs and Border Protection officials apprehended more than 144,000 people on the Southwest border last month. (The New York Times dutifully reported this as evidence of a “dramatic surge in border crossings,” rather than what it was: The administration using its own surge of arrests to justify the rest of its policies.)
If we call them what they are — a growing system of American concentration camps — we will be more likely to give them the attention they deserve. We need to know their names: Port Isabel, Dilley, Adelanto, Hutto and on and on. With constant, unrelenting attention, it is possible we might alleviate the plight of the people inside, and stop the crisis from getting worse. Maybe people won’t be able to disappear so easily into the iceboxes. Maybe it will be harder for authorities to lie about children’s deaths.
Maybe Trump’s concentration camps will be the first thing we think of when we see him scowling on TV.
The only other option is to leave it up to those in power to decide what’s next. That’s a calculated risk. As Andrea Pitzer, author of “One Long Night,” one of the most comprehensive books on the history of concentration camps, recently noted: “Every country has said their camps are humane and will be different. Trump is instinctively an authoritarian. He’ll take them as far as he’s allowed to.”