A Crime by Any Name

The Trump administration’s commitment to deterring immigration through cruelty has made horrifying conditions in detention facilities inevitable.

An overcrowded fenced area holding families at a Border Patrol Centralized Processing Center is seen in a still image from video in McAllen, Texas, on June 11. (Reuters)

The horrors detailed in the press were hard to believe.

Detainees described overcrowding so severe that “it was difficult to move in any direction without jostling and being jostled.” The water provided them was foul, “of a dark color, and an ordinary glass would collect a thick sediment.” The “authorities never removed any filth.” A detainee wrote that the “only shelter from the sun and rain and night dews, was what we could make by stretching over us our coats or scraps of blanket.” As for the food, “Our ration was in quality a starving one, it being either too foul to be touched or too raw to be digested.”

Such were the conditions of the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, Georgia, where, as the historian James McPherson wrote, 13,000 of the 45,000 men imprisoned “died of disease, exposure, or malnutrition.” The images of the captive, emaciated Union troops are shocking, evoking a form of suffering 21st-century viewers will likely associate with the Holocaust. The images so traumatized the Northern public that after the war, the warden of the prison, Henry Wirz, became one of the only people tried for war crimes. The Swiss-born Wirz was an easy scapegoat for Northern anger, which spared most of the former Confederacy’s military and political leadership.

The former Confederate captain was arrested in 1865, shortly after the close of the Civil War. The Union accused him of intending to “impair and injure the health and to destroy the lives [of the prisoners], by subjecting [them] to torture and great suffering, by confining in unhealthy and unwholesome quarters.” Wirz was charged with conspiracy to murder Union prisoners by offering them spoiled food, fouled water, and inadequate living conditions and medical care.

Wirz didn’t see it that way—he insisted that he was just following orders. The conditions at the prison camp at Andersonville were not deliberate, he argued, but the result of the Confederacy’s lack of resources. “I think I may also claim as a self-evident proposition, that if I, a subaltern officer, merely obeyed the legal orders of my superiors in the discharge of my official duties,” Wirz wrote in response to the charges, “I cannot be held responsible for the motives which dictated such orders.”

This was true, but also not truly a denial of culpability. The Confederacy did lack for resources, and that absence contributed to conditions at Andersonville, where, according to McPherson, “33,000 men were packed by August 1864—an average of thirty-four square feet per man—without shade in a Deep South summer and with no shelter except what they could rig from sticks, tent flies, blankets, and odd bits of cloth.” The prisoners “broiled in the sun and shivered in the rain.”

Yet the Confederacy’s lack of resources was not the chief cause of the horrors of Andersonville, because the Rebels did not have to keep the Union troops captive. In fact, they would have preferred to send many of their prisoners back. The Union, though, would not commit to troop exchanges unless black soldiers were included. Not placing such conditions on exchanges would have fatally undermined morale in black units and deeply harmed the Union’s ability to recruit black troops. Moreover, abandoning black troops fighting to preserve the republic would be, in the words of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a “shameful dishonor.”

The Confederacy considered black Union troops stolen property, and the indignity of treating black soldiers as combatants was anathema to a government whose cornerstone was white supremacy. Robert Garlick Kean, the head of the Confederate Bureau of War, wrote, “The enlistment of our slaves is a barbarity,” a “use of savages” that “no people … could tolerate.” It was more important to the Confederacy to treat black men as property than to obtain the return of their own troops, more important than preserving the lives of the Union captives, more important than relieving the logistical burden on their military prisons. If the Confederacy did not deliberately murder Union prisoners at Andersonville, its unshakable commitment to white supremacy made the deadly conditions at the prison inevitable.

As the historian Andrea Pitzer wrote in One Long Night, Andersonville is seen by many scholars as a “harbinger of the civilian concentration camps that soon followed.” Concentration camps antedate the Holocaust by many decades, having been used by the Spanish in Cuba, the British in South Africa, and both sides in World War I. Pitzer identified concentration camps, in short, as “places of forced relocation of civilians into detention on the basis of group identity.” They are often created as a kind of collective punishment, although she noted, “Rarely have governments publicly acknowledged the use of camps as deliberate punishment.” Detainees, she wrote, are “typically held because of their racial, cultural, religious, or political identity, not because of any prosecutable offense—though some states have remedied this flaw by making legal existence next to impossible.”

“Nearly every nation has used camps at some point, though the degree to which their populations have embraced them and the devastation wreaked by each camp system have varied wildly,” Pitzer wrote. “Their worst effects tend to be dampened in freer societies, where legal systems and legislatures have an opportunity to act. Yet a relatively healthy democracy is just as capable of instituting camps as the most corrupt Communist society or military dictatorship, sometimes with horrific results.”

Americans have again recoiled in shock and horror over the past few weeks as observers who visited immigration detention facilities in the Southwest reported that children were being held in cruelly austere conditions. These observers told the press that the children at a facility in Clint, Texas, were sleeping on concrete floors and being denied soap and toothpaste. They described “children as young as 7 and 8, many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears … caring for infants they’ve just met.” A visiting doctor called the detention centers “torture facilities.” At least seven children have died in U.S. custody in the past year, compared with none in the 10 years prior. More than 11,000* children are now being held by the U.S. government on any given day. As if these conditions were insufficiently punitive, the administration has canceled recreational activities, an act that, like the conditions themselves, likely violates the law.

At a processing center in El Paso, Texas, 900 migrants were “being held at a facility designed for 125. In some cases, cells designed for 35 people were holding 155 people,” The New York Times reported. One observer described the facility to Texas Monthly as a “human dog pound.” The government’s own investigators have found detainees in facilities run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement being fed expired food at detention facilities, “nooses in detainee cells,” “inadequate medical care,” and “unsafe and unhealthy conditions.” An early-July inspector-general report found “dangerous overcrowding” in some Border Patrol facilities and included pictures of people crowded together like human cargo. More than 50,000 people are being held in facilities run by ICE, and something close to 20,000 in facilities run by Customs and Border Protection, and more than 11,000 children in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.*  (The government describes them as “unaccompanied,” a label immigration advocates say is misleading because many were separated by the government from the relative who brought them) Some of the people detained by the U.S. government have entered the United States illegally or overstayed their visas; some are simply seeking to exercise their legal right to asylum.

The initial rollout of the family-separation policy, and then its denial, showed the Trump administration that its campaign of dehumanization against Latino immigrants is weakest when it targets children. This is the reason for the secrecy behind the squalid conditions at immigrant-detention facilities holding minors, which contrasts sharply with the very public announcements of “millions of deportations” by the president himself.

“They don’t want eyeballs on the actual conditions of these places,” said Amy Cohen, a doctor who consults on cases involving the 1993 Flores settlement, which continues to govern the conditions for children in immigration custody. “What they tell you is that they are protecting the privacy of these children. That makes no sense. What we need to be doing is protecting the lives of these children. And unfortunately, that does not seem to be a priority of the government.”

The journalist Jonathan Katz argued in May that given the intent behind these facilities, and the conditions that migrants are being held in, they are best described as a concentration-camp system in the United States. That assessment was echoed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was promptly accused of trivializing the Holocaust. “Allegations that somehow the United States is operating in a way that is in any way a parallel to the Holocaust is just completely ludicrous,” Representative Liz Cheney wrote. Although Ocasio-Cortez did not mention the Holocaust, the association between the Shoah and concentration camps is strong, and attacking an opponent for hyperbole is easier than defending the torture of children—not that Cheney is at all opposed to torture.

The reaction to Ocasio-Cortez is unsurprising. Whatever the merits of her criticism, when those in power are caught abusing that power in ways that are morally indefensible and politically unpopular, they will always seek to turn an argument about oppression into a dispute about manners. The conversation then shifts from the responsibility of the state for the human lives it is destroying to whether those who object to that destruction have exhibited proper etiquette. If congressional Republicans—or, for that matter, their constituents—had expressed a fraction as much outrage over the treatment of migrant children in American detention facilities as they did in response to Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks, she would never have had cause to make them in the first place.

This variety of tut-tutting is irresistible to many ostensibly objective journalists, who by convention are barred from expressing opinions on policy but are welcome to lecture on tone, and take nearly every opportunity to remind the rabble of their obligation to be polite to their rulers. But to express outrage at the criticism of nefarious conduct while treating that conduct as a typical political conflict in which there are two equally valid positions is to take a side.

Yet as horrifying as the conditions in these facilities are, this is not the Shoah, when the bureaucracy and industrial capacity of a modern state were marshaled to wipe the Jewish people from the Earth forever, and those who equate the two are mistaken. The Trump administration wants to preserve the political and cultural hegemony of white Americans, and by extension the Republican Party, over the United States, and is willing to break the law to do so. But the crime being committed is not genocide. America, though, has its own history with concentration camps, going back long before Hitler rose to power. And the malice, indifference, and deadly incompetence with which these facilities are run echoes that history.

In 1901, Colonel Jacob H. Smith was court-martialed for his use of “reconcentration,” among other brutal tactics, during the American occupation of the Philippines in 1901. The Supreme Court infamously upheld the internment of Japanese civilians during World War II, including at a site that the government now wants to use to detain migrant children. The precursor to what Americans are seeing at the border is not Auschwitz, but Fort Sill, Batangas, and Andersonville.

The fact that the facilities at the border are not death camps means that they have cleared the lowest conceivable bar. Both the mistreatment of migrants in these facilities, and the harsh measures taken in the name of deterrence, predate the Trump administration. Yet the same immigrant advocates who protested Obama’s record deportations over the course of eight years have warned that Trump’s approach represents a steep escalation in cruelty.

“There were definitely parts of the Obama program that did similar—and, in fact, some of the same—things,” said Chris Rickerd, a policy counsel at the ACLU. “But this all-encompassing skepticism of asylum seekers fleeing violence—justifying cruel treatment, justifying changes in the law, and justifying overcrowding to the point of unsafe and deadly conditions—[is] of a scale and a type that we haven’t seen before.” One pediatrician who visited a Border Patrol facility in Texas observed “extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food.” Photographs show migrants huddled together, languishing in filth behind chain-link fences, some with little more than Mylar blankets for shelter. The president’s defenders on Fox News have compared these conditions to summer camp and house parties.

The Trump administration has denied reports of shocking conditions at its immigration facilities, but contrary to those denials, the government is fully aware of the atrocious conditions. According to NBC News, one internal DHS report described cells so overcrowded that detainees could not even “lie down to sleep,” with temperatures “reaching over 80 degrees.” With inadequate showers, the migrants were “wearing soiled clothing for days or weeks,” and agents struggled to “quarantine outbreaks of flu, chickenpox and scabies.”

The Trump administration has previously deliberately inflicted suffering on children to deter illegal immigration, with its use of family separation. It has altered immigration policy and the asylum process so as to force the authorities to hold migrants, whether they have properly sought asylum at a port of entry or crossed illegally, and has made it more difficult for children to be released to sponsors in the United States by threatening to arrest and deport family members who lack legal status. By deliberately throttling the asylum process, the administration has pushed desperate migrants to risk death by crossing the border illegally rather than presenting themselves at ports of entry, and has sought to prosecute those who would help migrants survive the journey by leaving them food and water, effectively making the federal misdemeanor of illegal entry a capital crime. In private, some Border Patrol agents consider migrant deaths a laughing matter; others are succumbing to depression, anxiety, or substance abuse.

The Trump administration has consciously used immigration enforcement as a tool to terrorize undocumented immigrants and their American relatives, and to delight a base that revels in the use of state violence against those they see as trying to take their country from them, even to the point of undermining Trump’s own agencies’ enforcement operations. Top immigration officials have been purged, in part because, despite the extensive suffering Trump policies have created, the president’s advisers see the political leadership at DHS as “weak.” Trump’s latest choice to head Customs and Border Protection told Fox News’s Tucker Carlson that many of the “so-called minors” in detention are “soon-to-be MS-13,” based on having “looked at their eyes.”

If these acts do not represent animus toward those human beings the president has described as murderers, terrorists, and rapists, whom he declares an infestation, whom he identifies as the enemy by sending the U.S. Army to the border, whose families he has destroyed in a bid to inflict sufficient agony so as to deter future newcomers—if all of this does not make American immigration detention facilities concentration camps, it makes them far too close to the concept for any American to find acceptable.

This is, perhaps, the most daunting element of this entire conversation. If these facilities even vaguely resemble concentration camps, then American society has failed in ways many Americans do not want to contemplate. That resemblance would cast the Republican Party and its president as the perpetrators of an act of historic villainy. The Democratic Party leadership does not want the responsibility of leveling this charge and is incapable of bearing it, and most Republicans seem convinced that the omelet is worth a few cracked shells.

The conditions at these facilities may not result from acts of deliberate malice, but as with Andersonville, the administration’s unwavering pursuit of its ideological goal—making life so unbearable for migrants that they turn back—has made these conditions inevitable. The administration’s harsh approach to both the migrants and their countries of origin has failed in its stated aim. It has not decreased the number of people seeking refuge here, but the more people arrive, the harsher the administration’s response becomes. The administration’s only proposed solution is to legalize the unlawfully draconian treatment it has inflicted on migrants.

Although the administration has, in the past, misleadingly attempted to present conditions at the border as a crisis, there is now a genuine surge in the number of people fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries and seeking a better life in the United States. But to say there is a real problem at the border is not to endorse the Trump administration’s methods, which have only exacerbated the crisis, nor its proposed solutions, which would only worsen the conditions in the migrants’ nations of origin, leading to further emigration.

The Confederacy faced a genuine shortage of supplies for prisoners at Andersonville—but it also refused the obvious solution, declining a prisoner exchange. Upholding white supremacy was the reason for the Confederacy’s existence, and therefore too precious a goal to abandon. Above all else, the Trump administration wants to send the message that immigrants, especially those of African or Latin American descent, are not welcome in the United States, and as far as detention facilities are concerned, incompetence or indifference will serve that cause as faithfully as malice.

“The adamant posture of this government in trying to detain every single asylum-seeking family or child is making this worse,” said Nora Preciado of the National Immigration Law Center. “This is not new, but it definitely is the most horrific we’ve seen, again because of some of the Trump policies that are in place.”

The Trump administration could make it easier for migrants who do not pose a threat to public safety to be released pending deportation hearings, for which the overwhelming majority of undocumented immigrants show up, despite the president’s insistence otherwise. That would relieve the pressure on overstressed detention facilities. But it would also be insufficiently cruel, and therefore weak. And the cruelty is the point.

How could this be? To understand the Trump administration’s approach, consider his brain trust. Though the president himself is from Queens, New York, as Jane Coaston has written, the ideological engine of his administration is rooted in California, once the Reagan heartland, now a conservative wasteland. Trump advisers such as Stephen Miller are convinced that they lost California not through persuasion, but through demographics—that an influx of Latinos forever doomed conservatism. Cruelty toward migrants, even children, is justified as necessary to preserve the republic against what these advisers see as a foreign invasion. That Trump’s own home borough, once the home of Archie Bunker, is now one of the most diverse areas in the country likely only increases the resonance of this argument for the president.

On Fox News, which exercises unparalleled influence over Trump, conservative pundits warn that they will “lose the country” because of a “demographic shift” driven by Latino immigration, echoing warnings of “race suicide” from a century ago. Presenting Latino immigration as an existential threat allows both the president and his supporters to justify anything they might choose to do in response.

Yet this is not an inevitability, but a choice—conservatives in California made a political decision to demonize immigrants and paid the price. In Texas, where the GOP once charted a more moderate path, the party’s dominance was unchallenged until recently. Demographics are not destiny, unless you make them so. A conservatism that appeals almost exclusively to white people, and views nonwhites as an existential threat, is not worth fighting for.

The argument over whether or not these facilities amount to concentration camps is almost beside the point. The semantic dispute obscures the true conflict, over whether the Trump administration’s treatment of migrants amounts to a historic crime, whether future generations will wonder how those involved could possibly have gone along with it, whether there will one day be memorials erected to commemorate it, whether historians write solemn books about it, whether those looking back will vow never to repeat it.

These facilities are just such a crime, by whatever name you choose to call them.

* This article originally stated that there were 3,000 children in the custody of HHS.