America’s Border Conflict Part 2: Why many feel comparison between migrant detention centers, concentration camps is inappropriate

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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 U.S. Government.

By Tori Bergel
Staff writer
@BergelTori

This story is a continuation from part 1: “Analyzing claims that U.S. detention centers are modern-day concentration camps.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., sparked controversy this summer when she equated United States migrant detention centers to the concentration camps of World War II. Those opposed to her comments said the comparison was insensitive to victims of the Holocaust and was missing the point of each place’s overall intentions.

In a June Instagram live video, Ocasio-Cortez said, “The United States is running concentration camps on our southern border, and that is exactly what they are.”

She then added that, “the fact that concentration camps are now an institutionalized practice in the home of the free is extraordinarily disturbing.”

During the Holocaust, concentration camps were built to dehumanize and enslave people, virtually working them all to death — if they hadn’t already died from disease, starvation or in gas chambers. In contrast, America’s migrant detention centers are in place to hold those who have illegally crossed the border. Families are separated and everyone is subjected to terrible and unsustainable living conditions. The centers are certainly horrific, but to a lesser extent than the Nazi concentration camps. Many individuals on this university are among those bothered by the comparison.

‘Profoundly brutal’

When the Nazis rose to power in 1933, they built a series of concentration camps to imprison enemies of the regime, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Those jailed were not criminals, but individuals the Nazis thought threatened their rule, including communists, socialists and Roma.

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 death camps, whose sole purpose was to murder as many Jews as possible. These camps held only the gas chambers meant for mass extermination.

The concentration camps were only for those deemed fit enough to work. Children, along with their mothers, and the elderly, were automatically sent to gas chambers, according to Rozenblit. Those “spared” were separated by gender and subjected to backbreaking work with paltry rations to sustain them. They slept in bunk beds, multiple to a plank, while their barracks filled with human feces.

Inmates were given numbers instead of names and 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 had death camps within them, so there was a mixture of those who worked and those who were immediately killed.

Rabbi Yonaton Hirschhorn, a Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) educator who works within the Maryland Hillel, said that while he understands the surface level comparison between the camps and the migrant detention centers, those who see them as equal are missing the point.

“Here, America is trying to deal with people who are crossing its large borders. The Jews did not cross the border from Poland to Germany and then got detained and put in concentration camps and killed. Jews were rounded up in their house and their homes… and then they were forced into trucks and into concentration camps until they were worked to death and then killed,” Hirschhorn said. “To me it’s not a fair comparison.”

U.S. cruelty today

America’s detention centers, on the other hand, were started as an answer to the mass amounts of people illegally crossing the border into the U.S.

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 what started national outcry was a policy instituted by the Trump administration to separate migrant children from their families as a way to deter border crossing.

For up to months at a time, children and adults have been made to sleep on concrete floors do to overcrowding, with “basically plastic blankets,” according to Rouse, as well as being deprived of toiletries and other necessities.

A May report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general found 900 people shoved in a space meant for 125, according to TIME.

Food and water are limited, according to Rouse. There have even been reports of people with no other option, drinking out of the toilet.

Babies are given dirty bottles and experience diaper shortages, according to TIME. Children are subjected to freezing temperatures, 24-hour lights-on and various outbreaks like lice, flu, chicken pox and scabies, according to a pediatrician quoted by CNN.

The Administration has done a poor job of keeping track of families, 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.”

The final verdict

When asked about Ocasio-Cortez’s comments, Rouse said she doesn’t have a “black-and-white opinion,” but tries to steer clear of comparisons.

“I think the issue with the migrant camps are bad enough in and of itself without, sort of, trying to draw analogies to other situations,” she said.

“I personally feel uncomfortable using that term or don’t feel good about making those comparisons because I just can’t speak from a position of, you know, really authority about similarities and differences,” Rouse added.

Max Markowitz, a senior government and politics major and Jewish student at this university, said the term “concentration camp” is being used to evoke emotion but is an inappropriate comparison.

“I understand from maybe a third party view how that would seem appropriate because it has a lot of emotion behind it… but I think being a Jew, it’s almost hurtful, because there were different intentions there. At concentration camps, it was specifically for Jews and it worked people to death … and it just automatically killed people. … these camps [migrant detention centers] are not doing that,” Markowitz said. “I don’t believe these camps are fair at all. … but I think equating them to the concentration camps is not completely appropriate.”

Yonah Hamermesh, a sophomore economics major and an observant Jew, agreed with Markowitz’s disapproval, adding that the analogy is insensitive to those who perished in the Holocaust.

“I kind of think that comparing something like… the detention centers that are happening on the border to the concentration camps, which are basically the worst thing that’s ever happened in Jewish history, I think that that’s disrespectful to the Jews who passed away there. I don’t think that it’s therefore okay for what’s happening to be happening in the detention centers and I do think that that’s awful. I think that it’s disrespectful though to compare the two,” Hamermesh said.

Rozenblit, too, agreed.

“The detention centers that exist on the southern border of the United States are horrible. It’s horrible that the United States is doing that. It’s profoundly horrible, but they are not like Nazi concentration camps,” she said.

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