‘Some Suburb of Hell’
America’s New Concentration Camp System
On Monday, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to US border detention facilities as “concentration camps,” spurring a backlash in which critics accused her of demeaning the memory of those who died in the Holocaust. Debates raged over a label for what is happening along the southern border and grew louder as the week rolled on. But even this back-and-forth over naming the camps has been a recurrent feature in the mass detention of civilians ever since its inception, a history that long predates the Holocaust.
At the heart of such policy is a question: What does a country owe desperate people whom it does not consider to be its citizens? The twentieth century posed this question to the world just as the shadow of global conflict threatened for the second time in less than three decades. The dominant response was silence, and the doctrine of absolute national sovereignty meant that what a state did to people under its control, within its borders, was nobody else’s business. After the harrowing toll of the Holocaust with the murder of millions, the world revisited its answer, deciding that perhaps something was owed to those in mortal danger. From the Fourth Geneva Convention protecting civilians in 1949 to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, the international community established humanitarian obligations toward the most vulnerable that apply, at least in theory, to all nations.
The twenty-first century is unraveling that response. Countries are rejecting existing obligations and meeting asylum seekers with walls and fences, from detainees fleeing persecution who were sent by Australia to third-party detention in the brutal offshore camps of Manus and Nauru to razor-wire barriers blocking Syrian refugees from entering Hungary. While some nations, such as Germany, wrestle with how to integrate refugees into their labor force—more and more have become resistant to letting them in at all. The latest location of this unwinding is along the southern border of the United States.
So far, American citizens have gotten only glimpses of the conditions in the border camps that have been opened in their name. In the month of May, Customs and Border Protection reported a total of 132,887 migrants who were apprehended or turned themselves in between ports of entry along the southwest border, an increase of 34 percent from April alone. Upon apprehension, these migrants are temporarily detained by Border Patrol, and once their claims are processed, they are either released or handed over to ICE for longer-term detention. Yet Border Patrol itself is currently holding about 15,000 people, nearly four times what government officials consider to be this enforcement arm’s detention capacity.
On June 12, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that Fort Sill, an Army post that hosted a World War II internment camp for detainees of Japanese descent, will now be repurposed to detain migrant children. In total, HHS reports that it is currently holding some 12,000 minors. Current law limits detention of minors to twenty days, though Senator Lindsey Graham has proposed expanding the court-ordered limit to 100 days. Since the post is on federal land, it will be exempt from state child welfare inspections.
In addition to the total of detainees held by Border Patrol, an even higher number is detained at centers around the country by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency: on a typical day at the beginning of this month, ICE was detaining more than 52,500 migrants. The family separation policy outraged the public in the 2018, but despite legal challenges, it never fully ended. Less publicized have been the deaths of twenty-four adults in ICE custody since the beginning of the Trump administration; in addition, six children between the ages of two and sixteen have died in federal custody over the last several months. It’s not clear whether there have been other deaths that have gone unreported.
Conditions for detainees have not been improving. At the end of May, a Department of Homeland Security inspector general found nearly 900 migrants at a Texas shelter built for a capacity of 125 people. On June 11, a university professor spotted at least 100 men behind chain-link fences near the Paso del Norte Bridge in El Paso, Texas. Those detainees reported sitting outside for weeks in temperatures that soared above 100 degrees. Taylor Levy, an El Paso immigration lawyer, described going into one facility and finding “a suicidal four-year-old whose face was covered in bloody, self-inflicted scratches… Another young child had to be restrained by his mother because he kept running full-speed into metal lockers. He was covered in bruises.”
If deciding what to do about the growing numbers of adults and children seeking refuge in the US relies on complex humanitarian policies and international laws, in which most Americans don’t take a deep interest, a simpler question also presents itself: What exactly are these camps that the Trump administration has opened, and where is this program of mass detention headed?
Even with incomplete information about what’s happening along the border today and what the government plans for these camps, history points to some conclusions about their future. Mass detention without trial earned a new name and a specific identity at the end of the nineteenth century. The labels then adopted for the practice were “reconcentración” and “concentration camps”—places of forced relocation of civilians into detention on the basis of group identity.
Other kinds of group detention had appeared much earlier in North American history. The US government drove Native Americans from their homelands into prescribed exile, with death and detention in transit camps along the way. Some Spanish mission systems in the Americas had accomplished similar ends by seizing land and pressing indigenous people into forced labor. During the 245 years when slavery was legal in the US, detention was one of its essential features.
Concentration camps, however, don’t typically result from the theft of land, as happened with Native Americans, or owning human beings in a system of forced labor, as in the slave trade. Exile, theft, and forced labor can come later, but in the beginning, detention itself is usually the point of concentration camps. By the end of the nineteenth century, the mass production of barbed wire and machines guns made this kind of detention possible and practical in ways it never had been before.
Under Spanish rule in 1896, the governor-general of Cuba instituted camps in order to clear rebel-held regions during an uprising, despite his predecessor’s written refusal “as the representative...