As concentration camp expert Andrea Pitzer recently confirmed, migrant detention centers in the United States are concentration camps. But that’s not the question we should be focusing on. Rather, what we should be most concerned about is what these camps might ultimately be used for if our country falls into an actual economic or political crisis.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently used the term concentration camp to refer to the migrant detention centers that are used across the nation to detain migrants in preparation for deportation. Critics immediately lambasted the progressive lawmaker.
Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, encouraged Ocasio-Cortez to learn her history through a tweet:
.@AOC Concentration camps assured a slave labor supply to help in the Nazi war effort, even as the brutality of life inside the camps helped assure the ultimate goal of "extermination through labor."
Learn about concentration camps https://t.co/oBPQsjf6FC#Holocaust #History pic.twitter.com/nmc9As2nlO
— Yad Vashem (@yadvashem) June 19, 2019
New York City Mayor and 2020 democratic presidential candidate Bill de Blasio called Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison “wrong,” stating that concentration camps and detention centers are “entirely different realities.”
House minority leader Kevin McCarthy was more direct in his criticism, stating “She does not understand history. She does not understand what’s going on at the border … And to take something that happened in history where millions of Jews have died and equate it to somewhere that’s happening on the border? She owes this nation an apology.”
Having witnessed a populist leader consolidate deadly power first hand, I believe that Ocasio-Cortez’s critics are short-sighted. At this point, the only difference between concentration camps in Nazi Germany and their modern equivalents in the U.S. is a mindset.
And mindsets can shift quickly under the right conditions.
Concentration camps have existed in many forms in history, ranging from the Jewish death camps under Adolph Hitler to the Japanese internment camps mandated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940s.
However, the principle difference between inhuman concentration camps like the current migrant detention centers in the U.S. and deadly concentration camps like the modern-day gulags in North Korea is defined by a combination of three factors: the degree to which the detained have been dehumanized, the type of leader behind the camps, and the depth of crisis, perceived or otherwise.
Dehumanization of Detained
Currently, the United States is already deporting hundreds of thousands of people back to countries that are experiencing unprecedented violence. As a Nicaraguan migrant in Tijuana recently told me, “I’m applying for asylum to the U.S. but if I get deported back, that would be the end. It would be a death sentence for me.”
This is true for many migrants but few people in the U.S. are discussing this fact, which is reflective of the degree to which everyday citizens have already dehumanized migrants. “Nobody asks about life after deportation,” migration scholar Abigail Thornton told me during a week-long stay at Casa del Migrante, one of Tijuana’s oldest migrant shelters. “And we should be surprised by that. But that’s not the case.”
In this sense, undocumented migrants have already been dehumanized to the degree that few people in the U.S. bother to wonder what happens to them after deportation. That alone is troubling; however, the sheer number of people already deported is even more unsettling.
Between 1892 and 1997, the U.S. deported an average of 20,000 migrants per year, which works out to 2.1 million people over a 105-year period. In contrast, between 1998 and 2016, the US has deported 5.7 million people, at a clip of 320,555 migrants a year.
And if we add “returns” to “removals,” between 1993 and 2016, the U.S. government removed 27.9 million people from the country.
Take a second look at that number.
In 2017, the combined population of New York City, Newark, and Jersey City was 20.3 million people. Add in another 7 million people and you have the number of bodies the government has physically removed from its territory over the last two decades.
In the 1940s, although Roosevelt inhumanly imprisoned 120,000 Japanese Americans, 80,000 of whom were U.S. citizens, he did not fan the fire of hatred by dehumanizing any particular group in the United States. Rather, his rhetoric focused on defeating external enemies including Japan, Germany, and Italy. It’s impossible to say what might have happened had Roosevelt openly encouraged the dehumanization of Japanese Americans in the 1940s but it’s safe to conclude that his use of cautious language contributed to lives being saved.
To be clear, Roosevelt was not a fascist leader nor was he a populist. He didn’t rely on rigged elections, propaganda machines, or common enemies to scapegoat moments of crisis. He also did not purposefully dehumanize enemies in the press in an effort to undermine moral boundaries. However, we cannot say the same of President Donald J. Trump, who is arguably the first populist president in modern U.S. history and has openly degraded Latin American migrant, particularly Mexicans, since the beginning of his presidency.
Like Benito Mussolini and Hitler, Trump has skillfully used the media to reshape reality. As Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci once wrote, “Reality is defined by words. Therefore, whoever controls words, controls reality.”
Gramsci’s reflection came as a critique of the father of fascism, Mussolini, who drew from his experience as a journalist to consolidate power in Italy in the 1920s. Mussolini employed a propaganda machine of posters, newspaper articles, films, and radio spots to present himself to the Italian masses as a national savior amid a period of national crisis.
If Illegal Immigrants are unhappy with the conditions in the quickly built or refitted detentions centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 3, 2019
Trump – the self-proclaimed real estate mogul turned reality TV star – has used digital media to follow a similar script. Using Twitter as a conduit, Trump has dominated headlines since 2016. And in the process, he has numbed the U.S. public to the vitriol nature of his speech.
In fact, while Trump’s ratings remain historically low with approval rates of 42.5 percent, Trump is only 4 percent behind President Barack Obama’s final rating in office, and despite an escalation of political tension, his approval ratings have been improving in recent months.
Like other populists, Trump presents himself as the all-knowing leader. According to him, he alone has the answers to the nation’s problems, and since he became president, his persona has superseded both logic and fact within the Republican party. Just as Hitler controlled the strings of the Nazi party, and Mussolini was the face of the National Fascist Party, Trump has assumed virtual ownership of the Republican party.
Like his populist predecessors, Trump has tested the limits of his executive powers by inventing mini-crises such as the government shutdowns and the recent tariff war with Mexico.
And most recently, in an exchange with a Time magazine reporter, Trump threatened the journalist with prison time for attempting to take a photo of a piece of paper. Despite Trump’s unprecedented actions, his party – which is best positioned to reign him in – has displayed a degree of political loyalty that is both frightening and unprecedented in U.S. history.
Depth of Crisis
Donald Trump has presented migrants as “invaders” and has described the situation along the border as a “national crisis.” Of course, these claims fly in the face of available facts which demonstrate that immigrants contribute to national wellbeing by reducing violence in our communities, strengthening tax bases at the state and national level, and spurring innovation.
Nonetheless, Trump’s words and his subsequent escalation of the situation, has converted a perceived crisis into a tangible crisis that, although fabricated through Trump’s digital propaganda machine, is real in its consequences.
We are misguided in asking ourselves whether or not the nation’s migrant detention centers are concentration camps. They are. What we should really begin to ask ourselves is how these camps will be used if our nation falls into an actual national crisis such as a deep economic recession or a protracted war.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.