For the past week, American media has been obsessed with the question: Can the American prisons for immigrants who crossed the border illegally be legitimately called “concentration camps”?
This question has three major flaws:
- Each side of the debate is using a different definition of concentration camp. The “Yes” side is using the dictionary definition: “a type of prison, often consisting of a number of buildings inside a fence, where political prisoners, etc. are kept in extremely bad conditions”. It is clear that America has large prison complexes where the immigrants are being kept in extremely bad conditions. The “No” side is using the contemporary cultural definition, where concentration camp refers specifically to Auschwitz and other camps built by the Nazis. While the conditions in American immigration prisons are bad, they’re nothing compared to Auschwitz. Furthermore, one of the defining characteristics of Nazi concentration camps was that they were a step in extermination – a waiting-place before being sent on to death camps and gas chambers, or being killed via a conscious effort to starve and overwork inmates to death. Although the American prisons for illegal immigrants are bad, they are NOT part of a systematic attempt to literally kill the inmates.
- The debate seems to function as a stand-in for the question, “Are Donald Trump’s actions right now as bad as the Holocaust?”. This question relies on the false assumption that in order to be worth standing up to, immoral policy decisions must be as bad as the Holocaust.
- The question simplifies the Holocaust. Are Donald Trump’s actions right now as bad as the genocide and death of 6 million Jews, as well as millions or Roma, homosexuals, and political prisoners? No. But it’s important to remember that the Holocaust didn’t start out as the Holocaust. It became the Holocaust through incremental steps. Hitler’s original goal was not to kill all the Jews per se, but rather, to ensure that there were no Jews in Germany and its territories. Towards that end, one of his first steps was to strip Jews of German citizenship with the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, so that they no longer had full legal rights and would be seen as foreigners. Then, Hitler’s next major moves against the Jews were: 1) Rounding up and deporting Polish-German Jews back to Poland in 1938 2) Kristallnacht, which was meant to convince German Jews to self-deport and leave Germany. So when Donald Trump inflames fears about Latino “illegals”, while threatening to look into and revoke people’s citizenship, as those close to him talk about self-deportation, it does raise some alarm bells. These bells become louder when it becomes clear that Latino immigrants who crossed the border illegally are being kept in prisons with inhumane conditions, with the administration trying to avoid providing the kids it locked up with basic hygiene necessities, like soap and toothpaste. Then, this weekend, after a public outcry, a plan for ICE to go to major cities raiding and rounding up Latino immigrants who crossed the border illegally (who would then be deported or sent to immigration prison camps) was cancelled. For those of us who had our ancestors rounded up and sent to concentration camps by Nazis, it’s hard not to read that and feel a deep unease.
This is the part where many people will point out two major differences between Donald Trump’s immigration policies and the Holocaust: 1) These immigrants did break the law by crossing the border illegally. The Jews in the Holocaust had not broken any laws. 2) The Nazis wanted to kill my great-grandparents and grandparents. Donald Trump merely wants to deport people back to their countries of origin.
I agree that these differences are important however, 1) Legal transgressions are not a justification for treating people inhumanely. And while it’s true that the legal transgression is the official reason that these immigrants are being imprisoned and deported, it’s also true that these policies are clearly being aimed at people from certain countries, who look a certain way, and are being backed up by hateful rhetoric against Latino-American communities. 2) Yes, Hitler tried to kill my family. My great-grandmother’s ashes lie in the dust-piles at Auschwitz-Birkenau. But it was only after the Nazis decided that getting the Jews to emigrate and leave Germany and its territories was too difficult, that the “Final Solution” to kill all the Jews was created. Killing replaced deportation as a way of achieving the original goal: a Jew-free Germany. So the fact that the Trump administration is “only” talking about deportation doesn’t give me much comfort, since, at the beginning, Nazi policy was also “only” about deportation.
Never again is a mandate to never let another Holocaust occur. We do not fullfill this mandate by asking “Is it as bad as the Holocaust yet?”, and waiting for the answer to be “yes”, before jumping in. We fullfill this mandate by jumping in before a situation has the opportunity to become Holocaust-like, so that the answer never becomes “yes”. If we wait for something to be as bad as the Holocaust before taking action, then we have, by definition, failed to prevent another Holocaust.
Despite our cries of “Never Again”, since the end of World War Two, there has been genocide in Rwanda, in the Balkans, and in Darfur. Right now, China is rounding up Uighur Muslims into internment camps as punishment for the crime of being born to the wrong ethnicity. The goal of the camps is to “re-educate” them through mistreatment and violence, forcing them to shed their Uighur identity. In Mynamar, tens of thousands of Rohingya are fleeing state-sponsored genocide. The Mynamar government’s official reasons for its actions, by the way, are that Rohingya are foreigners and illegal immigrants who don’t belong in Mynamar (even though they’ve lived there for centuries), and the stated goal is to get them to leave the country -not to kill them. That’s probably cold comfort to the over 10,000 Rohingya who have died.
Once, we might have looked to the United States to act as a moral voice, condemning these countries for their actions. Instead, we are caught up in a debate over whether America’s mistreatment of immigrants who crossed the border illegally is bad enough to be called “concentration camps”.
As a Brazilian-American, and as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, that makes me incredibly sad.