In June of last year, Fox News host Laura Ingraham called immigration detention centers used to detain migrant children and families “essentially summer camps.” Since then Jakelin Caal Maquin (age seven), Felipe Gomez Alonzo (age eight), Juan de Leon Gutierrez (age 16), another unidentified 16-year-old, and a two-year-old infant boy have died while in U.S custody in those very detention centers. An additional 24 adult migrants have lost their lives since 2017 while in U.S. custody.
Recently, the Trump administration has eliminated educational and recreational activities such as English classes and soccer games, and cut legal aid to unaccompanied minors in detention. The Department of Justice argued in federal court this week that the U.S. government doesn’t have any responsibility to provide toothbrushes, soap, and other basic toiletries to migrants while in CBP or ICE detention centers. The DOJ also argued that it sees no problem with mothers and children sleeping on concrete floors so cold that the cells have been dubbed “hieleras,” or iceboxes, by their inhabitants.
A recent internal watchdog report on the condition of four ICE detention centers found “immediate risks or egregious violations.” These transgressions on the human rights of migrants included, “nooses in detainee cells, overly restrictive segregation, inadequate medical care, unreported security incidents, and significant food safety issues.” In two of the detention centers investigators visited they even found broken and moldy bathrooms.
Clearly, summer camp is not the right term for these facilities. But should they be called “concentration camps” as Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) called them earlier this week?
Summer camp, detention center, migrant facility, federal migrant shelters—none of these terms quite do justice to the suffering immigrants are experiencing at the hands of the U.S. government. Concentration camps is a more suitable description.
Calling these facilities concentration camps is not an attempt to draw a parallel to the horrors of the Holocaust, or to compare the monstrosities of Hitler toward Jewish people with the atrocities of the Trump administration toward immigrants. But if conditions in U.S. concentration camps have to rival what happened at the Auschwitz death camp for there to be an outcry, then we are completely lost as a nation.
Waitman Wade Beor, a University of Virginia lecturer told Esquire, “Things can be concentration camps without being Dachau or Auschwitz. [They have] in general always been designed—at the most basic level—to separate one group of people from another group. Usually, because the majority, or the creators of the camp, deem people they’re putting in it to be dangerous or undesirable in some way.”
I’ve lost count of how many times President Trump has called migrants criminals. He’s suggested migrant caravans are full of “stone cold criminals.” He’s called Mexican immigrants, “drug dealers,” “criminals,” and “rapists.” He’s gone as far as saying, “these aren’t people, these are animals.”
Trump didn’t build the first migrant camps at the border. The Clinton administration did that in the mid 1990s, and President Obama expanded their use, but the Trump administration has used them to unleash new and intentional horrors on migrant populations. The conditions for calling these facilities a concentration camp are all there, including the part that was missing from past administrations: an official assertion that the people detained there are “dangerous or undesirable in some way.”
Trump has falsely claimed that migrants bring, “large-scale crime and disease.” Experts have debunked such myths. Dr. Paul Spiegel, the director of the Center for Humanitarian Health at John Hopkins School of Public Heath, told NBC News, ”There is no evidence to show migrants are spreading disease…That is a false argument used to keep migrants out.”
But what is happening is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Last week ICE placed 5,200 adult migrants in quarantine for exposure to mumps, and chicken pox. This is another well-documented consequence of concentrating people in camps.
“The longer [migrants] are there, the worse conditions get. That’s just a universal of camps. They’re overcrowded…As you see mental health crises and contagious diseases begin to set in, they’ll work to manage the worst of it. [But] then there will be the ability to tag these people as diseased, even if we created [those conditions]. Then we, by creating the camps, try to turn that population into the false image that we [used] to put them in the camps to start with. Over time, the camps will turn those people into what Trump was already saying they are,” Andrea Pitzer, the author of One Long Night” A Global History of Concentration Camps told Esquire.
Republicans, journalist, and even some Democrats and liberals have attacked AOC for calling detention centers what they are, concentration camps. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said in a tweet, “…’concentration camp’ is a an extremely charged term and I get why many people are, in good faith, uncomfortable with its application for Godwin’s Law purposes among others. So let’s just call them ‘detention camps,’ and focus on what’s happening in them.”
But Hayes is wrong. If we are actually focused on what is happening inside them— deaths, rapes, basic human rights denied— then the only conclusion we can come away with is that these facilities are operating in the way concentration camps were designed to operate. The creator of Godwin’s Law—which holds that the longer an online discussion continues, the likelier it becomes that someone will compare something to Hitler or the Nazis—agrees with me. Mike Godwin replied to Hayes, “I think they are concentration camps. Keep in mind that one of their functions *by design* is to punish those individuals and families who are detained. So even the ‘charged’ term is appropriate.”
We don’t want to compare what is happening today to what happened during or before the Holocaust because it makes us uncomfortable to think that we could be capable of such sins. But we don’t have to commit the same sins as the Nazis did to be on the same side of history as them. We give comfort only to the people who accept or applaud the abuse of these migrants by agreeing not to make them grapple with the full horror of what’s being done in their names. The people abusing language are the Laura Ingrahams of the world, who would call them “summer camps,” and those who seek to ease Ingraham’s conscience by criticizing truth-tellers. The camps are what they are—the question before us is, What we are going to do to stop more migrants from ending up in them?