By Gabriela Godinez Feregrino
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently said, “the fact that concentration camps are an institutionalized practice in the ‘home of the free’ is extraordinarily disturbing.” When met with outrage she tweeted that she refuses to apologize for calling the border camps exactly what they are: concentration camps.
Right-wing propaganda media like Fox News jumped on the opportunity to say that the comparison was insulting to the communities who perished and to those who survived the Holocaust. In the United States, and many other places in the world, the term “concentration camps” is strongly associated with the Holocaust, but that is not when the term was coined.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition for “concentration camps” reads as “a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority are detained or confined under armed guard.” Its first known use was in 1897.
Because of this right-wing propaganda-guided shift of focus, TV journalists end up hosting debates in attempts to seem fair and unbiased. These debates and airtime ends up legitimizing arguments about semantics rather than the fact that children are dying under U.S. custody.
While it might be important to discuss the meaning of terms since no one seems to agree on facts, it is mostly being used to waste time and energy so people become so tired of the topic that people end up ignoring actual atrocities. This is known as a “straw man” which the M-W dictionary defines as “a weak or imaginary opposition (such as an argument or adversary) set up only to be easily confuted.” One fact that we should be able to agree on is that these border camps in the U.S. are areas where large numbers of people, such as refugees and members of an ethnic group, are detained and confined under armed guard.
We don’t have to call them the same thing, but we have to focus on the fact that they are happening and that they are deplorable. Slate has reported that the “U.S. Border Patrol is refusing citizen donations even as it holds migrant children without access to soap and toothpaste.”
The New Yorker reported that “hundreds of immigrant children who have been separated from their parents or family members are being held in dirty, neglectful, and dangerous conditions at Border Patrol facilities in Texas.” This was almost not discovered, the article reads, because the Clint Facility usually houses a maximum of 104 adults and those investigating were reporting on child-focused conditions. But it was later reported to be housing “approximately three hundred and fifty children.”
In another article by the Associated Press, “a traumatic and dangerous situation is unfolding for some 250 infants, children, and teens locked up for 27 days without adequate food, water and sanitation” in El Paso Texas. We should be able to agree that none of these cases should be acceptable nor should they be taking place in the United States of America.
Many of the people being detained in these camps are not crossing the border illegally. According to The American Immigration Council, “The Refugee Act established two paths to obtain refugee status—either from abroad as a resettled refugee or in the United States as an asylum seeker.” If someone crosses the border into the U.S. seeking asylum, they are doing so legally. Many of these legal asylum seeking immigrants are being held in these camps and according to NBC News, federal data shows that 24 immigrants have died while under ICE custody. According to Vice News, this number does not include children that have died under other federal agencies, or those that have died shortly after being released from ICE custody.
GQ published an article on June 5, 2019 stating “in July of 2018, 37 detained migrant children boarded vans in Texas so they could be reunited with their parents at the Port Isobel Detention Center. But when they reached the Immigration and Customs Enforcement–run detention facility, they had to wait. And wait. It took 39 hours and two nights spent sleeping in vans for the last child to be processed and reunited with their family, with most of the 5- to 12-year-olds waiting at least 23 hours in the center's parking lot.”
This is not a new issue; this is deeply ingrained into our American history. It is part of our beginning, middle, and present. This country was built by murdering those who were already here, and then moving the surviving Native American into areas that the government deemed fit. In the 1900 the American government built concentration camps in the Philippines during the American-Philippine War. Years later Japanese Americans were displaced and moved into camps, stripping them of their possessions and jobs, all while dehumanizing them in the process. Now we are here, with camps at the border that rip families’ apart, let people die, and the cycle continues. It is up to us to vote, protest, and organize to say that we no longer will let this continue.