America’s Border Conflict Part 1: Analyzing claims that U.S. detention centers are modern-day concentration camps

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U.S. Border Patrol agents conduct intake of illegal border crossers at the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas on  Sunday, June 17, 2018. Photo by the U.S. Government.

By Tori Bergel
Staff writer
@BergelTori

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., in a series of tweets, posts, videos and interviews this past June, compared the migrant detention centers on U.S. borders to concentration camps, a claim that has been widely disputed among members of all parties.

 Immigration has been a huge source of controversy in this country thanks to President Trump’s  policies toward individuals and families attempting to find refuge within the United States. Detention centers were put in place as a way to hold those who crossed the border illegally while their status was being determined. The concentration camps to which they are being compared are those implemented by the Nazis during World War II.

The Nazi Camps

When the Nazis (National Socialist party) rose to power in 1933 they built a series of concentration camps meant to imprison anyone seen as an enemy to the regime, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Those jailed were not criminals, but those the Natzis thought threatened their rule, including communists, socialists and  Roma, also known as Gypsies.

According to the museum, the term concentration camp refers to a camp “in which people are detained or confined, usually under harsh conditions and without regard to legal norms of arrest and imprisonment that are acceptable in a constitutional democracy.”

Marsha Rozenblit, a Jewish History professor at this university who specializes in Jews in 19th and early 20th century Central Europe, said that the Nazis added a secondary set of camps starting in late 1941 and 1942: six extermination camps, whose sole purpose was to murder as many Jews as possible. These were the camps that held the gas chambers meant for mass extermination. There were no barracks or living quarters in these camps. No one here was meant to stay the night.

A rare few could be “spared” for work in the concentration camps, which were also terrible,  according to Rozenblit, with “extraordinarily brutal” conditions. Barracks were overcrowded with prisoners sleeping three, four or even five to the plank of a bunk bed. There were no places to wash themselves. There were communal latrines or, during the night, when prisoners weren’t allowed outside, buckets along the walls that would overflow. Human feces was everywhere and the smell was overwhelming. The conditions caused diseases that killed large numbers of people.

Rations were sparse, inmates might be given bread and a watery soup each day. “They may have given them 250 calories a day and they made them do very heavy labor,” said Rozenblit.

The labor was backbreaking and prisoners were given inadequate clothing of wooden clogs and worn striped pajamas, akin to a “gray shapeless dress,” according to Rozenblit.

The Nazis didn’t care about families. Children were automatically sent to gas chambers. Only men and women who were deemed fit and young enough for forced labor would be spared. If women had children, however, they were sent to the death camps along with them. For those whose lives were spared, women and men were split up into separate barracks, so if by chance a couple was chosen together, they would right away be separated when taken for work.

Inmates were as dehumanized as possible. They were given numbers instead of names, their heads were shaved: “everything that makes a human being a human being was taken away,” said Rozenblit.

“Most people in the concentration camps died,” she said, “I mean, the conditions were profoundly brutal, on purpose of course. And so there was starvation, there was filth, there was overcrowding, there was freezing cold, I mean there was no heat, you know, and it was inadequate clothing.”

Some concentration camps, like Auschwitz and Majdanek, had death camps located within them, so there was a mixture of individuals who stayed and worked as well as mass amounts of people who were killed.

U.S. Detention Centers

Another horrible reality can be seen within the migrant detention centers highlighted often in today’s news.

According to TIME Magazine, overcrowding and unsanitary conditions have been reported at the centers run by numerous federal agencies, most notably U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Dr. Stella Rouse, an associate professor of government and politics at this university who focuses on minority politics, Latino politics, identity politics, Millennials,  immigration and state and local politics, said that the most recent issue regarding these centers that came to light, and what started the national outcry, was a policy instituted by the Trump administration to separate migrant children from their families as a way to deter people from crossing the border.

What ended up happening, according to Rouse, was that more people started coming over the border seeking asylum than the Trump administration had anticipated. Therefore, agencies implemented detention centers to separate the adults from the minors until each case went through the traditional immigration system. However, there was no policy for how those individuals would be housed, so many of the children ended up in holding centers with terrible living conditions.

Poor conditions included having to sleep on concrete floors due to overcrowding, with “basically plastic blankets,” according to Rouse, as well as being deprived of toiletries and other necessities like sanitary napkins and other products for women.

TIME Magazine added that, “Adults and children have been held for days, weeks, or even months in cramped cells, sometimes with no access to soap, toothpaste, or places to wash their hands or shower.” TIME also said that a May report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general found 900 people shoved in a space meant for 125.

Food and water is limited in the centers, according to Rouse. There have even been reports of people being forced to drink out of the toilet because faucets and other means of getting water didn’t work.

Babies were made to drink from dirty bottles and experienced diaper shortages, according to TIME. And children were also subjected to freezing temperatures, 24-hour lights-on and the outbreaks that have resulted from such harsh conditions, like lice, flu, chicken pox and scabies, according to a pediatrician quoted by CNN.

The Trump administration also did a poor job of keeping track of children and their parents, according to Rouse, who added that after children were separated they “couldn’t bring them back together because they had no way of identifying who their parents were.”

Conditions for adults were terrible too, Rouse said, but the issue that’s been gaining the most attention is the Administration’s treatment of migrant children. Rouse added that, “the Trump administration came to an agreement with Mexico that Mexico wouldn’t let these folks come across the border, they’re being housed in Mexico as their asylum or immigration status is determined.”

Both the Nazi concentration camps and the U.S. detention centers have committed horrible injustices to people undeserving of such treatment. However, there is a clear difference in the creation and implementation of both, such that an equal comparison cannot be fairly made.

This article is part of a two-part series analyzing the basis of Ocasio-Cortez’s claim and then hearing the opinion of University of Maryland community members. 

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