Migrant Detention Facilities are Not Fascist Concentration Camps

In the aftermath of the attack on the US navel base at Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces, the Roosevelt administration issued Executive Order 9066 (1942) ordering Japanese Americans into internment camps. Most of those rounded up by the government were American citizens, indefinitely interred without trial. The US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066 in Korematsu v. United States (1944). A majority of justices agreed that national security takes precedent over the rights of citizens and residents of Japanese descent. The camps were dismantled after the second world war in 1945.

A concentration camp is a facility where persecuted minorities or political prisoners are imprisoned without trial. Given this definition, which is the standard one, it is reasonable to consider Japanese Americans to have suffered concentration camps in the United States, albeit many Americas resist that equivalency. Years later, President Reagan affirmed the injustice of Executive Order 9066 and authorized the US government to compensate survivors. What the Roosevelt administration did to the Japanese people living in the United States is widely regarded as reprehensible, even after acknowledging war hysteria and contemporaneous attitudes.

Today, the question of what constitutes a concentration camp is an item on the partisan political landscape. Talk of concentration camps began in the summer of 2018 as the migrant crisis at the US-Mexico border dragged on, a concern that faded as political attention shifted to the pending Mueller report, which, the public was told, was sure to conclude that President Trump was a traitor. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reconjured the specter of the concentraiton camp in her Twitter feed, referring to the president a “fascist.” Chuck Todd, moderator for NBC’s Meet the Press, pushed back. Immigration detention centers and concentration camps are “not at all comparable in the slightest,” he said, before suggesting that it was improper to invoke the memory of the Holocaust. Mainstream and social media voices on the left jumped to Ocasio-Cortez’s defense, emphasizing that the congresswoman did not actually refer to “Nazi death camps,” which they insisted are different from concentration camps, or, as Ocasio-Cortez calls them, “dog pounds” and “freezers” stuffed with “1000s of children.”

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention center in Donna, Texas

Are immigration detention facilities concentration camps? Because detention facilities, jails and prisons, psychiatric wards, and other places of confinement present as harsh places, it is always important to ask about the purpose or function of a facilitiy. In the second paragraph, I identified the purpose of a concentration camp, a rather extraordinary institution in the modern period, one signaling the presence of war or an authoritarian government. What is the function of an immigration detention facility?

Every country in the world regulates its borders. Borders are part of the modern nation-state, the necessity of controlling national boundaries recognized across the interstate system. Under international law, people are in principle free to leave the country in which they reside. However, international law does not recognize a right to enter a foreign country without authorization. For those seeking asylum, possible justifications identified in international law (“refugee” is defined in the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees), many countries have developed a process for determining the veracity of asylum claims.

In many countries, routine procedure involves a stint in a detention facility while claims are being processed and the situation assessed. This is consistent with international law. In 1986, the UN Refugee Agency affirmed that detention is justified for numerous and obvious reasons: “to verify identity; to determine the elements on which the claim to refugee status or asylum is based; to deal with cases where refugees or asylum-seekers have destroyed their travel and/or identity documents or have used fraudulent documents in order to mislead the authorities of the State in which they intend to claim asylum; or to protect national security or public order.”

Given limitations of resources, when persons are detained in large numbers, which can occur during surges in migration, prolonged detention and overcrowding can result. In countries with press freedom and a compassionate public, images and stories of detention facilities, with their fences and armed guards and poignant migrant accounts, provoke visceral reaction and arouse sympathy. This is not a bad thing, but the solution to a migrant crisis is not to abandon law and principle, but to advocate for appropriation of more funds to establish more and better facilities and increase the number of qualified personnel. However, ideologues see political advantage in impressions without qualification and prey on emotion while eschewing reason.

Currently at the southern border of the United States, immigration detention facilities are crowded with persons, many in poor health, most hailing from the three Central American states of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The conditions of their detention are far from ideal. Even under generous conditions, confinement can be an unpleasant and, for some, traumatic experience. Nonetheless, persons irregularly entering the United States are afforded due process, and can, if they wish, return to their home country. Because of court-imposed limitations on how long migrants may be detained (established years ago, consistent with the spirit of international law), persons not legally returned to the border’s other side are eventually released in the United States with a citation to appear for a hearing to determine their status. More than forty percent of those released from detention disappear into the United States, skipping their hearings and evading law enforcement. Ninety percent of those who properly cross or show up for their hearings after being released from detention are found to have no legitimate claim under international law to be in the United States and are deported.

We are told that those crossing into the United States from Mexico are refugees. A refugee is defined as an individual with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion [who] is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” Central Americans migrants are not members of a persecuted minority. They are not being singled out on account of race or religion. They are for the most part economic migrants looking to work in the United States, to take advantage of the country’s comparative higher standard of living and system of public assistance (who can blame them?). Also among the migrants are members of domestic street gangs (pandillas) and transnational gays (maras), which pose a security risk to American communities. (See “The Northern Triangle, the Migran Flor, and the Risk of Criminal Violence.”)

So are immigration detention facilities concentration camps? For decades now, the nation-states of the world have practiced administrative (or civil) detention of illegal or undocumented aliens. The detention of immigrants in the United States is not arbitrary, but a matter of the rule of law. The system is a legitimate piece of the machinery of the modern democratic republics. There is no violation of international law. The situation at the border may bear superficial resemblance to Japanese American internment during WWII, just as a European prison cell may resemble that of a Soviet Gulag, but in substance, they are not comparable. So the answer is no. It is neither historically nor functionally accurate to compare immigration detention facilities to concentration camps. 

There is no misunderstanding about this for those shocked by Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison. The tone of her texts and videos calls to mind Hitler and the Holocaust. When someone as clever as the congresswoman from New York uses the words “fascist” and “concentration camp” to describe the detention facilities and US immigration policy, her intent is obvious. For all those rationalizing Ocasio-Cortez’s rhetoric, even more see clearly what the congresswoman is doing; she means to portray the current administration in a Hitlerian light, to frighten the public with the specter of Nazism, to upend reason with panic. She enjoys the corporate and alternative leftwing media at her back.

Such rhetoric leverages the emotionalism of historical memory to shame people into open borders. That is the agenda. Capitalist firms want cheap labor for super profits and to drive down working class wages (hence the aggressive push by the Cato Institute and the Koch brothers). There are gaps in the pews of the Catholic Church; a dying Church always seeks congregants. Progressive types need to virtue signal. The campaign is cynical and manipulative. Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters should make the case for the denationalizing of America straightforwardly, without exploiting irrational fear and ignorance in an attempt to sway opinion. The congresswoman knows open borders is unpopular, so she resorts to false analogy.

More than conceptually wrong and ethically problematic (I agree with those who find Ocasio-Cortez’s use of language insensitive to those who actually suffered fascist oppression, who endured the concentration camps of WWII, who lost relatives to Nazism), Ocasio-Cortez rhetoric is politically reckless if she indeed cares about the rebuilding the left in this country. Americans in the heartland know it is an absurd comparison. They understand the difference between immigration detention facilities where people are being temporary held while processed and concentration camps where people are held without good cause and are often waiting to be routed to labor camps and death camps. There are limits to Orwellian tactics. Such hyperbolic rhetoric makes the left appear not merely disconnected from reality but anti-American in disposition.  

It’s not just the legitimacy of the Democratic Party that’s at issue; the interests of the working class, at odds with illegal immigration and open borders, are further alienated from the class consciousness we need to build a popular movement that can tackle the problems we face: class exploitation and inequality, lack of health care, poverty and homelessness, global climate change, mass incarceration. Frankly, I am much less concerned about the Democratic Party than I am about the legitimacy of the left in general. Mass perception paints with a broad brush. The Republican Party is not a worker party. But Republicans are eager to accept refugees from the Democratic Party into their fold. They have been doing this for decades. It is why they control so much of the political landscape. Anti-Americanism bleeds the left of working class support. Every time an image of a leftwing activist holding a placard with the slogan “When was America ever great?” is shared on social media, sympathy for President Trump, and, more broadly, rightwing populism, grows and deepens.

How do we bring down the fever on the left? Perhaps it is useful to suggest to people that they keep in mind the fact that most countries regulate their borders more stridently than the United States, and that those nations with more restrictive policies includes some of the most democratic societies of Europe. Who would think to call immigration detention facilities in Sweden “concentration camps”? According to the Global Detention Project, there are four secure administrative centers in Göteborg and in cities around Stockholm, operated by the Swedish Migration Agency, that hold minors (accompanied and unaccompanied), adult women, and adult men. Is the government of Sweden “fascist”? Hardly. Nor is Sweden exceptional in this regard.

Of course, moral panic is not merely the result of living in a progressive bubble. It has functions, the most immediate of which is delegitimizing a president and stirring up widespread panic to mobilize voters for the upcoming election. What gives this game away?

Noting double standards can be quite revealing. Why did the left ignore the camps and immigrant deaths under Obama? Obama deported nearly half a million illegal aliens in 2012 alone, separating families in the process. Where were the howls of fascism then? Over the course of his presidency, Obama deported million of illegal aliens. But he did it with such class, didn’t he? The pictures of kids in cages used last year to spread hysteria about Trump’s handling of the border crisis were actually taken during the Obama presidency. The public didn’t recognize them because they were not put into the mass media echo chamber. But those “dog pounds” and “freezers” were Obama’s. The corpses in the desert and in Border Control custody were on Obama’s watch. (For more on this, see “Law Enforcement and Family Separation.”) Vice-president Joe Biden takes pride in the Obama administration because there was “not even a hint of scandal.” And that’s true, because it was Obama not Trump.

Ask yourself, why the focus on the immigration crisis now? It’s not as if the crisis subsided to allow Democrats time and space to gin up anticipation over the Mueller report, which turned out to be a dud, or the push for impeachment, which struggled to get any traction (it is opposed by the majority of Americans). That manufactured scandal is petering out. So we’re back to the immigration crisis dressed up with concentration camps and fascist imagery. (Ocasio-Cortez is hardly the first to use language suggesting Nazism in order to demonize the current administration. See my entry “Immigration, Deportation, and Reductio ad Hitlerum,” blogged at the height of last summer’s panic over immigration while I was traveling through major cities in Sweden and Norway witnessing firsthand the fallout from mass migration.) The congresswoman uses this rhetoric in a context that generates meaning. It is disingenuous to obscure the intent of her rhetoric.

While conditions in detention facilities along the UW-Mexico border need to be addressed (it would help if Congress appropriated funds for more and better facilities and more qualified personnel), there is a common sense understanding that border control is necessary and that this involves detaining for a reasonable period those being processed, a common sense understanding that is recognized in international law. But on today’s left there are demagogues who exploit humanitarian crises for propagandistic ends. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez assures us that she doesn’t “just throw bombs.” But it’s her style.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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