Don’t Be Outraged They’re Being Called Concentration Camps. Be Outraged They Exist.

Jun 19, 2019
7:45 AM

On Tuesday, Republican Rep. Liz Cheney, the daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, tweeted an indignant condemnation of Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who earlier had denounced what she called “concentration camps” on the nation’s southern border, referring to detention centers where thousands of mostly Central American asylum seekers continue to be being held in accordance with the Trump administration’s Draconian border policy that has already produced tens of thousands of detentions, thousands of family separations, and two dozen deaths.

Cheney is not alone. Other conservative commentators have objected to the characterization of border holding facilities as “concentration camps,” claiming that the use of such terminology is inaccurate and “demeans the memory” of the victims and survivors of the Holocaust. But these commentators are wrong, both historically and morally. Not only is it historically accurate to call these detention centers concentration camps, but the uproar reveals a curious and cruel irony: conservatives are more outraged by the terms used to describe the detention camps than they are by the conditions inside them.

First, as several historians and journalists have already pointed out, it is important to remember that although the two terms are often used interchangeably, concentration camps are not the same as death or extermination camps. As Andrea Pitzer —who wrote a book about the history of concentration camps— has shown, the concept and use of concentration camps did not originate during (or even in reference to) the Holocaust.

Concentration camps were first implemented at least several decades earlier by Spanish authorities in Cuba, where colonial rulers forcibly “re-concentrated” peasants in the countryside (who often aided independence efforts) into urban centers under tight colonial grip in an effort to crush the insurrection and regain control of the population. Moreover, the situation and conditions at the border certainly fit the longstanding definition of concentration camps outlined by both dictionaries and human rights groups, which generally define them as the detention or confinement of civilians in harsh conditions without trial or due process.

This is precisely what is happening at the border, and it matters that some are calling detention centers “concentration camps” and that they are correct. By all accounts, the conditions are horrific. Those who have seen the detention centers have likened them to “human dog pounds,” where children have been forced to sleep on the ground; where as many as 76 migrants have been crammed into cells designed for only a few people; and where detainees been exposed for long periods of time to 100-degree weather without cooling or shade, or alternatively, forced to live in “icebox” conditions, something which recently resulted in the death of a teenager.

There are also reports that refugees are in some cases being denied sufficient food, clean water, access to toilets, and feminine products. And human rights observers have warned that “the state of human rights in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands is grave and is only getting worse.” So when activists call the conditions at the border “concentration camps” they do so not to belittle the particular atrocities that European Jews suffered at the hands of Nazi Germany, but to remind us, in the spirit of the sentiment “never again,” that those atrocities did not materialize suddenly, but rather, built up in a slow simmer that began with concentration, isolation, and dehumanization—all of which characterize the conditions at the border camps in our present day.

It is also worth noting that these historical allusions are not new, either. In the years following the Second World War, numerous human rights activists argued that the horrors of the Holocaust should guide how Americans thought about vulnerable populations, including foreigners in (and those seeking entry into) the country—and journalists, activists, and observers routinely decried the “concentration camp-like” conditions in which braceros and undocumented workers were forced to live. And when in the 1970s, some policymakers suggested creating a national citizenship ID to curb illegal immigration, immigrants’ rights advocates and many ordinary Americans objected, suggesting, as one government worker put it, that “we need no stars of David in the United States.” It is telling that many of the most vocal advocates for immigrants’ rights in the 20th century were, in fact, prominent Jewish figures —people like the labor leader Lenore Miller and the immigration attorney Ira Gollobin— who knew better than most what hate, scapegoating, and xenophobia could produce.

Of course, the comparisons do run the risk of going too far. But just as we should be careful not to overstate the realities at the border, neither should we downplay them or the potential for current conditions to get worse. Perhaps Cheney and others like her have been comforted by an exceptionalist view of the United States into thinking that “concentration camps” cannot possibly exist within (or at) our borders. Unfortunately, they do, and things could get worse, especially considering we find ourselves living in a moment when nativists and right-wing extremists have found aid, comfort, and validation in the highest seats of American power.

So we should call Trump’s detentions centers what they are: concentration camps. More importantly, we should be troubled not by the fact that such terminology is being used, but by the uncomfortable reality that it’s being used so fittingly.


Eladio Bobadilla is an assistant professor of history at the University of Kentucky. He is an expert in immigration history and policy and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. He tweets from @E_Bobadilla_PhD.