Knee-jerk comparisons of President Donald Trump and the government’s immigration control strategies to the actions of Hitler and the Nazis are troubling. It’s not that it’s categorically wrong to compare historical cases and various practices to those of Nazi Germany. To a priori rule out any historical comparison is an ideological restriction on inquiry (I do not subscribe to Godwin’s law). I don’t support the Trump presidency and its excesses; that’s not the reason I am troubled. Drawing an analogy between the Nazi death machine and US immigration control strategy is erroneous on historical grounds and wrongheaded as a political strategy. Playing the Nazi card out of turn enables right-wingers to dismiss concerns about what is happening at the US-Mexico border as hyperbole and partisanship. It also stymies rational discussion about immigration policy.
An ID bracelet worn by an immigrant child in a detention facility for the purpose of administering food is not analogous to a tattoo on the wrist of a person scheduled for extermination. The wristbands are in place to account for resources, not to direct human traffic. No child should be held in detention for long periods of time. But a detention facility is not a concentration camp. Families are not separated at the border in a systematic effort to liquidate groups of people. In the present situation, children are separated from adults while the latter undergo criminal proceedings. When adults are sent to jail, children cannot accompany them. Societies should strive to avoid family separation but, in enforcing the law, it is often unavoidable. There is no plan on the part of the Trump Administration that resembles the Nazi program of racial purification.
US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan denies that the Trump Administration has a policy of administrative separation. The ACLU responds that although “the statement is technically true — the administration’s new ‘zero-tolerance’ policy does not explicitly mention family separation — in practice, it is meaningless. Prosecuting every person who crosses the border somewhere other than a port of entry necessitates criminal detention. If a person has children with her, that necessitates taking the children away.” (The Associated Press reported the matter the same way, namely that “while separating families might not be official U.S. policy, it is a direct consequence of Sessions’ zero-tolerance approach.”) However, if something is “technically true,” that doesn’t make it false. The ACLU finds it “perverse to cite a prohibition on jailing immigrant children as the reason for this administration’s systematic separation of families.” But then the law is perverse (for reference, the law is Title 8, Section 1325 of the U.S. Code, Section 275 of the Immigration and Nationality Act), since family separation is the necessary result of enforcing the law. All any president has to do to trigger this feature of the law is to step up enforcement of immigration law.
In 2010, Obama signed the Border Security Bill which appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars for boarder patrol and drones. Within two years of having been president, Obama had deported roughly as many people as Bush had during the entire tenure of his presidency. In 2011, Cecilia Muñoz, White House director of Intergovernmental Affairs, said, “Even if the law is executed with perfection, there will be parents separated from their children.” Over 150,000 immigrant children were taken from their parents due to detention/deportation proceedings in 2012. From 1998 to that point over 500,000 immigrant children experienced separation. The majority of these children were under 10 years of age. Over 5,000 were placed into foster care. These children were placed in foster care not because they came across the border unaccompanied, but because their parents were deported. The law doesn’t allow for children born in the US to be deported. And the law doesn’t allow for children to accompany their parents to jail when their parents are charged for illegally crossing the border. The Secure Communities program, an initiative run out of Obama’s Department of Homeland Security, required local police agencies to forward the fingerprints of detainees to ICE. If any were found with criminal records, they were deported, even if they had children born in the United States. This policy drives family separation. Before Obama, Bill Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper tripled the budget for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, the forerunner of Immigration and Custom Enforcement, or ICE) and employed a “control through deterrence” strategy, beefing up the border with personnel and military hardware. Clinton’s 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act compounded the oppression. Family separation results from these laws, policies, and actions.
The ACLU is correct when it identifies the president’s goal: “The true purpose of family separation is clear: To treat families seeking refuge in the U.S. so poorly that fewer people will do so in the future.” The Trump Administration is exploiting this feature of the law to deter irregular border crossings. The idea is that if Central and South Americans hear that families are being separated at the border they will be reluctant to attempt to enter the country. Migrating to the United States is fraught with dangers (human trafficking, criminal victimization, starvation and dehydration, exposure to the elements), so there is a compelling humanitarian interest in deterring immigration for the immigrant’s sake. Moreover, immigration negatively affects native-born, especially low wage and vulnerable workers.
But neither Trump’s approach to controlling the borders nor family separation as a strategy of deterrence is novel to the immigration story. Obama’s response to the 2014 surge is the source of the disturbing images of immigrant children flooding social medium, falsely attributed to Trump’s policy — children crowded into cages, sleeping on concrete floors. Obama also sought to deter illegal immigration with his aggressive policy, and his actions did reduce the flows. There was a further decline in border crossings after Trump was elected, a response to Trump’s tough talk on immigration at his well-publicized campaign rallies. But when word spread that he was not imposing the draconian restrictions voiced in his campaign rhetoric, border crossings began to increase again, especially for migrants from Latin American countries south of Mexico. By spring 2018, Trump Administration implemented a zero tolerance policy to stem the increased flow. However, when Trump moved aggressively on immigration control it sparked hysteria in which comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis became common place.
Alleged authority on authoritarianism, journalist Masha Gessen, told Joy Reid that the “fascism” of Trump reminded her of the mocked-up 2016 Boston Globe cover with the fake headline “Deportations to Begin.” The mock cover was published by The Boston Globe on April 10, 2016 as a warning to the public about Trump’s extremism. The Globe published this fake story certainly knowing that Obama was deporting a record number of people from the United States. Only a year and a half ago we refused to believe deportations would occur, Gessen said, and now, with Trump in office, deportations are underway and Americans are tolerating it.
Yet deportations are hardly indicative of fascism. Neither is family separation. As we have seen, in carrying out mass deportation, Obama aggressively pursued individuals who had been here for years, with children born here, and deported them, forcing them to leave their children behind or forcing their children to leave their country of birth. There were not just a few cases of this, but thousands. Based on her past statements and actions, the public could be sure that Hillary Clinton would have done the same thing as president. Clinton has been consistent in her immigration views over the years. (How could she would ever forget that the Cuban migration crisis that threw her out of the governor’s mansion in Arkansas?) When Clinton was senator of New York, she enthusiastically supported the Secure Fence Act of 2006. In 2007, she backed New York governor Eliot Spitzer on denying drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants. She bragged about her tough stance on immigration on the campaign trail. Clinton’s State Department provided material support for the 2009 Honduran coup that resulted in a massive outflow of Hondurans. They were escaping for their lives but Obama and Clinton sent them back. In a 2014 interview with Christiane Amanpour, in answering a question about unaccompanied minors crossing the southern US border, Clinton said: “We have to send a clear message. Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay.” Yet neither Obama nor the Clintons are judged fascistic for these statements and policies. Indeed, the deportation of persons illegally in a country is routine in democratic countries.
I am watching this loss of perspective in the United States at the same time I am speaking with experts in Sweden and Norway about the detention and deportation process in the most progressive countries in Europe. The Ministry of Justice in Norway has three branches that work in unison: law enforcement, corrections, and immigration. This is not exceptional. Sweden, the country I am in right now, routinely deports people who are here illegally. Neither Sweden nor Norway are fascist countries with fascist governments or fascist leaders. They are social democratic countries with generous social policies, the rule of law, and a culture of humanitarianism. Europe has just come through a migrant crisis, and the way European states have dealt with it is by sharply restricting immigration. Norway’s policy is similar to the US policy under Trump, yet nobody would think to compare Norway’s policies to Nazi policy. The irony is that nationalism is on the rise in Europe, a problem that is, in large measure, a function of the failure of states to address the problem of mass immigration. Governments are carrying out the agenda of big corporations and financial institutions over against the interests of the working class. Restricting immigration lessens the burden on social support systems, slows the pace of cultural transformation, and gives immigrants a chance to assimilate, to find their place in society. Assimilation reduces the threat of right-wing nationalism.
The people here are realizing that if they don’t want to become fascistic at some point in the future then they need to protect citizens and their way of life by defending the borders and demanding new arrivals abide by the laws and learn the language of the host country. They let that understanding slip away from them a bit over the last decade, but with the consequences plain they are now reducing the flow of immigrants into their countries. Norway is working to get crime under control. Sweden has a way to go, but recognizes the problem. One way they are dealing with it is to understand that immigrants entering the employment and justice systems find their options limited because they don’t have the resources, language skills, and cultural capital to negotiate the system. That’s not the fault of Swedes, but they are nonetheless suffering the consequences.
Reductio ad Hitlerum is ill-advised because obvious exaggeration discredits those making false comparison and alienates people who may be prepared to listen to concerns about policy. If one aspect of something is a lie, then it is fair to wonder whether the rest of it is a lie. Trump and his followers take that and run with it. Comparisons of the present border control action and the Holocaust trivialize what happened to Jews, Gypsies, gays, and others under Hitler. Suggestions that our situation has never been this bad trivialize the lynching of blacks, the extermination of native peoples, Japanese-American internment, eugenics and forced sterilization, and the systematic destruction of families in the war on drugs. Moreover, failure to address the very real issues surrounding immigration fuels right-wing populism.
This is not a matter of scope and intensity; there’s a qualitative difference between detaining and processing those who break the law and exterminating people on the basis of race and ethnicity. If progressives can’t argue why Trump’s immigration policy is wrong (while still supporting immigration control as they have in the past) without resort to comparisons with Nazis, then how can they hope to reach those who are unsympathetic about the plight of immigrants? Conservatives can see through exaggeration and hyperbole. Overreaction and bad analogies harm the credibility of leftwing politics and the struggle for social justice.