Have we built concentration camps on our border? As a Holocaust educator, I get asked this question a lot.
It’s the wrong question. Asking whether they are concentration camps pushes us into extreme language that blocks conversation. It leads us into a debate about words and away from productive discussion of the moral conundrum we face. Immigration is not simple, and as a nation, we will not easily find moral clarity. But there is clearly suffering and we must focus on finding ways to prevent it.
Words have consequences. Calling these facilities concentration camps alienates potential allies on both sides of the argument: those who feel that this language is unnecessarily extreme and those who feel that this language denigrates the Holocaust.
Extreme language sends us in the direction of intransigence and yelling past each other, rather than providing help to those who are in need.
The right question
If “Are these concentration camps?” is the wrong question, then what is the right question? The right question is: “Does our treatment of the refugees reflect our values?” I fear that the answer is no. We seem to have forgotten the edict that should be deeply embedded in our souls: “Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We have forgotten that somewhere in our history, we have all been refugees.
Any attempt to make America great again should be based on the foundation that continues to make America great: The strength of our moral vision and the embrace of our immigrant melting pot. Our most famous landmark holds a beacon to the world’s tired, poor, and huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. We have always prided ourselves in being a beacon of liberty, freedom, truth, and justice.
What can we do to help you and when will you become a citizen?
Refugees have long been key shapers of our nation. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is a Holocaust refugee from Czechoslovakia. She tells a story of a time when she, as Secretary of State, had the opportunity to present new citizens with their citizenship papers. “Can you believe it?” she heard a man say, “I’m a refugee and I just got my naturalization certificate from the Secretary of State!” She responded, “Can you believe that a refugee is Secretary of State?”
Ms. Albright spent World War II in London and came to the US when Czechoslovakia fell behind the Iron Curtain. “When we were in England, people would say, ‘We’re so sorry your country’s been taken over by a terrible dictator. You’re welcome here. What can we do to help you, and when are you going home?’ When we came to the United States, people said, ‘We’re so sorry your country’s been taken over by a terrible system. You’re welcome here. What can we do to help you, and when will you become a citizen?’”
When did we stop asking people those marvelously paired questions?
A predictable path
We need to stop asking the “concentration camp” question, because it doesn’t matter if we call them concentration camps, internment camps, or detention centers. What matters is that people in these places are suffering.
What makes this particularly concerning is that there is a predictable pattern to the path of abuse. The path to abuse starts with being careless with people. It starts with focusing on your need to keep them contained over their basic human needs to be fed, clean, and with their families. I fear that as a nation, we have already taken the first steps on a path to abuse and injustice.
We gathered to say: Never again means not now.
We gathered to say: We will not idly stand by while people are mistreated. We will not stand idly by, thinking that we are helpless to change a broken system.
We gathered to say: We insist that our nation be a shining light on the hill. We insist that our next steps are towards treating people with dignity and respect, no matter who they are or what they’ve done.
Don’t give up on change
As the sun set on Friday, we held a candlelight vigil to express our solidarity with those suffering along the border. We lit our candles from each other’s, recognizing that we have to work together to make a difference.
I lit my candle, and the breeze immediately blew it out. I found myself lighting the candle again and again, unable to sustain a flame against the wind. I was, of course, not alone in having this problem.
The difficulty keeping the candles alight was symbolic of our difficulty making a difference. Change is hard. As we try to pull the country toward the light, we will fail, again and again.
We must not give up on change. We must keep trying, again and again, to move the conversation forward.
But we must recognize that extreme language does not move the conversation forward. Extreme language divides us and separates us from natural allies. We must remain focused on alleviating suffering and not get distracted by words that become stumbling blocks.
The light on the Statue of Liberty still burns bright for this country, this land of immigrants and refugees. It was a beacon to my immigrant ancestors fleeing Lithuania and Russia a hundred years ago. Let it continue to be a beacon to the refugees coming to our shores, whether it be through New York Harbor or across the Rio Grande.
 Deuteronomy 10:19
 “Madeleine Albright on the uses and abuses of empathy and power.” Clear and Vivid with Alan Alda, June 3, 2019. This was her first naturalization ceremony as Secretary of State, held at Monticello in honor of Thomas Jefferson, the first Secretary of State.
 See Isaiah 49:6 and Matthew 5:14.
 See Leviticus 19:14.