They say that images are worth a thousand words. We have heard the descriptions of the immigrant detention centers, but they hardly made a dent. In fact, some of those descriptions lead to celebrations by people who blame the migrants, and the migrants alone, for what is happening at the border. The fact that people are risking life and limb to leave conditions in their home countries that are insufferable seems to not make a dent. Nor do people care how much this is the result of long-standing policies by our own country in Central America. Spare me the blame America first epithets. I almost expect this from people who care little for history, facts or information.
Over the weekend we had a few things emerge. The first was reporting from members of Congress who described what is going on in these centers. This added to non-governmental organization visits that went public with conditions that violate every humanitarian principle of US and International law.
Conditions are so bad that Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez described these places with a simple term that sent some people into paroxysms of denial. She called them concentration camps. Granted, most Americans think of death camps when the term comes up. And this is an error in our educational system. Not to diminish the Holocaust, but these camps are not unlike Bergen Belsen in the early years of the thirties when it fires opened. Or for that matter some of the Japanese Internment camps the United Staes ran during World War Two.
They fit the legal definition of a concentration camp. Why? They are meant to bring together civilians into a point of concentration where they can be kept under strict control. There is more. What is happening in these camps is worse than Manzanar. We are separating families, men and women, and children. We have done this in the past, just not in recent times. We used to take children away from First Peoples and send them to orphanages or for adoption. Many of these refugee children, we now know, will never go back to their families. The Associated Press uncovered this, and according to the Christian Science Monitor:
Federal officials insist they are reuniting families and will continue to do so. But an Associated Press investigation drawing on hundreds of court documents, immigration records, and interviews in the United States and Central America identified holes in the system that allow state court judges to grant custody of migrant children to American families — without notifying their parents.
And today, with hundreds of those mothers and fathers deported thousands of miles away, the risk has grown exponentially.
States usually seal child custody cases, and the federal agencies overseeing the migrant children don’t track how often state court judges allow these kids to be given up for adoption. But by providing a child’s name and birthdate to the specific district, probate, or circuit court involved, the AP found that it’s sometimes possible to track these children.
We need to be quite clear about this. Under International treaty law, which we have signed and has the force of US law, this is considered a severe violation. There is more, during previous administrations the United States called other nations on similar actions towards their own citizens or refugees. This is taking away any moral standing by the United States on the world stage.
It can also be understood as a form of genocide. According to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide:
In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
© Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
So here we are. We are separating families, we are keeping people in subpar conditions. People are dying because of this. Partly this is to discourage this mass migration, without dealing with the structural reasons for it. The intent is to make it worse than facing death in the home country. It is also racist to the core.
Here is also what is disturbing. The posts at the 10–15 private group on Facebook uncovered by Pro-Publica reveal a culture within the Border Patrol that is primed for more abuses. If you think this is bad, it can get far worse. The posts reveal an agency where the humanity of their charges is never acknowledged. They clearly can get away with it, no matter the feigned surprise by their superiors. That is more like oops, we were caught with our hands in the cookie jar. Some of the material includes what Members of Congress spoke off, including having detainees drink from the toilet and people denied medications.
Yes, these are concentration camps. If the term makes you uncomfortable because of Nazis, well, at least be happy that this is not yet the worst. That would be death camps. However, similar concentration camps existed in Germany starting in the 1930s. After the Wannsee conference, the industrial nature of death came to be. But they did not get there instantly, and it took desensitizing the population before that was acceptable.
If we remain silent as to what is happening in our name, things will get far worst. Could we see the systematic removal of even Americans of Hispanic descent? Yes, it has happened in living memory. Operation Wetback was precisely that, ethnic cleansing ten years after the Holocaust. These camps are both a warning of what could come, and a stain on the nation. They are a product of a culture of the far right that justifies any horror in the name of yes, racial purity. it is not limited to the United States, but this is cold comfort.
As to the agents, we know that the excuse will be, we were following orders. Nuremberg made that quaint excuse obsolete. Will any of these people ever face the music? It is a good question. But what is happening demands that all of us raise our voices in protest, because today it is them, but it could very well be us in the near term. When one allows for this, the poison spreads to the whole society.
Yes, the agents obey orders and become monsters, but the policies are coming from high up. These are authorized by the President of the United States, who made no secret during the campaign about his animus towards immigrants of brown skin who spoke Spanish. So the question will be, how are we going to hold the leadership of this nation accountable for this? That is not an easy answer.
The first step is not recoiling or getting defensive because the term concentration camp makes you nervous. It should, actually. But this is also coming from a place where we have made the Holocaust such a unique event in the popular imagination that we lack the ability to conceive of this happening, again. The Holocaust and I know I am speaking heresy, is not unique. Historians know this. Genocides and the dynamics leading to them are well understood. We are watching those take hold right as I type in the United States.