They’ve been called a lot of different things. Border detention camps. Migrant detention facilities. Border detention cells. But the rhetorical gymnastics simply do not matter — the language doesn’t hide anything. As the world asks, “Does America have concentration camps?” — an unthinkable question in 2019 — the answer has to be yes.
There’s been a lot of debate around the exact definition of a concentration camp and whether or not what’s happening at the US border qualifies. Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, defines concentration camps as the mass detention of civilians without trial — and what’s happening right now certainly fits the bill. Others put the threshold higher, thinking that conditions must be as dire as Auschwitz in order to be considered a concentration camp. These debates miss the point — if you’re arguing about whether or not something technically counts as a concentration camp, you’ve already left your humanity far, far behind.
While we’re arguing over measuring sticks, people are living in squalid, unacceptable conditions. Sleeping on the floor, huddled together in their own filth, denied access to lawyers and their family — technical definitions don’t matter to the people who are scared and suffering.
Concentration Camps As A 21st Century Reality
There is so much to be furious about when it comes to these centers. The world cried out when it saw Vice President Mike Pence, silent and aloof, ignoring the cries of men in custody. But it’s the children. It’s the children that really get to us.
We are living in a time where a lawyer for the Trump administration has stood in a court of law and nit-picked whether or not “safe and sanitary” facilities meant that migrant children were actually entitled to soap or a toothbrush. We are living in a time where children are being held in a van for almost two days before they are reunited with their parents. We live in a time where at least seven children have died while being detained.
To understand the enormity of the situation, look at May of this year. In that month alone, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents apprehended in the hundreds of thousands of people. Around 132,887 people were apprehended at the southern border and over 10,000 more arrived at legal points of entry without the correct documents. And that is just in a single month.
There is overcrowding, there is abuse, and at least 24 people have died in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Trump administration.
The Dangerous Rhetoric Of Safety
While xenophobia and fear of crime have long been used to support authoritarian measures, America saw a huge upswing after 9/11. “The War on Terror” became a limitless, unending nightmare used to justify all manner of sins. Similarly, today’s border crisis is justified by evoking the rhetoric of crime, security, and safety.
It would laughable, if it wasn’t so sickening, to use this kind of language in the face of how migrants are being treated — and what they are fleeing. War and poverty, violence and destitution — a lack of safety and security is what people are running from, not what they are creating.
Warsan Shire said that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land. Looking at the condition at the detention facilities, it’s clear the same holds true. No one would risk the squalor, the treatment, the lack of legal protections and, most importantly, no one would ever risk the separation from their children unless they had no other choice.
A Telling Mistake
One 18-year-old, Francisco Galicia, was held for three weeks and lost 20 pounds, describing the unlivable conditions. Since freed, he has spoken out. And what’s made headlines about his story is one basic fact — that he is American. He was born in the USA.
And of course, it’s unthinkable — it is almost unbelievable that a country could treat one of its own that way. So that’s what newspapers point to, that’s what the headlines read. But this discrimination, this abuse, this othering — it’s not about citizenship. It’s not about American versus not American, it’s not even just about borders — it’s about racism.
This deep-rooted racism and xenophobia have been apparent through every step of Trump’s administration. From the early days of the Muslim travel ban through to telling four US congresswomen to “go back” to their home countries. Those four women were all American — three of them were born here. But, despite his active role in the “birther” movement, simply where you’re born isn’t at the heart of Trump’s prejudice.
It’s about your skin color. Your class, your gender, your sexuality, your religion, but more than anything else, it’s discrimination and racism in the truest sense of the word. When they saw Francisco Galicia they saw his Mexican heritage, they saw his name — and they ignored everything else. Because what ties him to this country doesn’t matter to this administration, it’s about anything and everything that makes him different to them.
So yes, it’s shocking that a country would detain one of its own for three weeks in deplorable conditions. That he was denied the right to shower for over three weeks, that he was forced to sleep on the floor — this is not how a country should treat its citizens. But it’s not really about citizenship — because that’s not how any country should treat anyone.
When we start to think in qualifiers, when we start to point out the most egregious versions of what’s happening, we start to lose sight of how disgusting it is at its core. We need to talk about the deaths, we need to talk about the extremes — of course we do. We need to get angry.
But we also need to remember that the people who are being treated the best at these detention centers are still being treated more unfairly and despicably than should ever be allowed. That the baseline of what’s happening is bad enough.
We look back in shame on how Japanese Americans were treated when this debate reared its ugly head during World War II — and yet we’ve arrived here again. The time for debate about definitions and limits is over — it’s time for action.
To learn more about the current border crisis and to lend a hand, please consider supporting one of the many charities supporting migrants and refugees.