Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently compared the internment camps along the border to concentration camps, where, echoing a report from Esquire, she noted the detainees are being “brutalized with dehumanizing conditions and dying.”
She was met with backlash from Republicans who felt, wrongly, that Nazis were the only people to have concentration camps, and that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was invoking the holocaust.
Ocasio-Cortez replied, “I will never apologize for calling these camps what they are. If that makes you uncomfortable, fight the camps—not the nomenclature.”
Thank God someone has a spine.
She has absolutely no need to apologize. She’s correct.
The dictionary definition of a concentration camp is “a place where large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities, sometimes to provide forced labor or to await mass execution.”
Now, are the conditions in the camps inadequate? Yes. A report from the Department of Homeland Security in 2017 notes, “We identified problems that undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment.”
On Fox News, Art Del Cueto said, “It’s disgusting to compare concentration camps to what the men and women are doing here protecting our country.” Discounting the fact that Nazis felt very strongly they were protecting their country from Jews, let’s talk about what exactly guards at the border are doing in the name of “protecting our country.”
The Guardian spoke to people who had survived the U.S.-Mexico border camps and they explained, “The 'hieleras', or iceboxes, asylum-seekers said, were overcrowded, unhygienic, and prone to outbreaks of vomiting, diarrhea, respiratory infections and other communicable diseases. Many complained about the cruelty of guards, who they said would yell at children, taunt detainees with promises of food that never materialized and kick people who did not wake up when they were expected to.”
In spite of a federal court order, detainees were not given basic amenities like toothbrushes or mats they could sleep on. They were provided only with half frozen bologna sandwiches to eat.
In some cases, ICE takes medications away from the people kept in the camps, with disastrous results, such as people vomiting up blood. In other cases, children were forcibly injected with psychotropic drugs. Trump officials wanted to use one migrant girl as a guinea pig on which to test an “abortion reversal” procedure. One detainee explained,“They see us not like human but as animals here.”
In Texas, a five-year-old almost died of a ruptured appendix due to medical neglect in the camp. Her mother had to beg, repeatedly, for days, for her daughter to get treatment—and she didn’t receive any until her daughter had passed out from pain and had a temperature of 103 degrees. Comparatively speaking, her daughter was lucky. According to a report from January, 22 people have died in the camps in the past two years. One of those more publicized deaths was of a transgender woman, Roxsana Hernandez. The autopsy report declared that her symptoms went on “over multiple days with no medical evaluation or treatment, until she was gravely ill.”
Trump doesn’t deny that deaths are happening. If anything he seems almost pleased that the people in the camps are getting what he feels they deserve. He tweeted in December, “Any deaths of children or others at the Border are strictly the fault of the Democrats and their pathetic immigration policies that allow people to make the long trek thinking they can enter our country illegally. They can’t. If we had a Wall, they wouldn’t even try!”
Basically, if we throw these people into camps and they die, it’s their own fault for coming here.
That is not really, by any standard, a humane response. Especially not to people who are attempting to flee violence in their homeland that’s a direct result of our intervention.
But then, it’s acceptable to his base, because the Trump administration’s rhetoric has insured that these people are not seen as fully human. They’re referred to as “animals” in addition to “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists.” The Trump administration also wanted to publish a list of immigrant crimes, just as the Nazis published a list of Jew’s crimes. If immigrants from South America were somehow not a marginalized group before, they certainly are now. And in the future, this will feel as repulsive to future generations as persecution of any other group feels to us now.
To call where these abuses are happening concentration camps is quite accurate. Concentration camps are, as McSweeny’s pointed out, not a term trademarked by Auschwitz (which was a death camp). You should also take Republicans with a small grain of salt when they denounce anti-semitism, given that Trump’s supporters have regularly expressed their feeling that Jews should be thrown into ovens, and Trump refused to denounce those sentiments.
That’s not to say the Holocaust was not one of history’s worst atrocities. It was. But Germany is not unique in having concentration camps. They are however, much better than most about educating their citizenry about exactly how horrific those camps were, and how easily normal people can accept them. In Germany, education about the holocaust and Germany’s awful role is mandatory in school and “Germans still seem to grapple almost eagerly with their own historic guilt and shame.”
For this reason, you will not, for instance, find a great number of monuments to history’s losers in Germany. There aren’t statues of Rommel and monuments to fallen Nazi soldiers, unlike in the U.S. where there are monuments to Confederate generals. Indeed, the immediate post-war de-Nazification of Germany and demands for the populous to grapple with their shame has in part been responsible for, according to Politico, turning Germany into “a vibrant democracy that is notably less permissive of racism, extremism and fascism than the United States.” That’s not because Germans don’t know their history. It’s because they know it well enough to know that parts of it were morally egregious.
Americans, by comparison, are shameless. The darker parts of our past, such as the Civil War, slavery, the wholesale genocide of Native Americans, and, perhaps most relevant to this particular instance, the Japanese Internment camps, are either forgotten about entirely or sugarcoated. We’re treated to Gone with the Wind revisionism or WWII-era nostalgia which overlooks our own moral failings entirely.
At a Dollywood show depicting the birth of America, Native Americans are depicted as turning into birds and flying peacefully away. If you do not teach people fundamental history, it’s quite a simple leap to say that the United States can’t have concentration camps because the United States is good.
We aren’t good, in particular (though I like to think we have some very good moments). We’ve had, in the very recent past, Japanese Internment Camps during WWII. President Roosevelt himself referred to those centers as “concentration camps.”
Trump is now planning to use a former Japanese Internment Camp to house migrant children. Perhaps Americans will at least be comfortable calling that specific one a concentration camp, as Roosevelt did.
Probably not though. Because if they admitted how horrible the situation was, they might have to do something about it.