Are Immigration Detention Centers Concentration Camps?

June 23, 2019

Aviva Chomsky discusses the reality of refugees coming to the U.S in light of the controversial statement of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that refugees are kept in concentration camps

Aviva Chomsky discusses the reality of refugees coming to the U.S in light of the controversial statement of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that refugees are kept in concentration camps


Are Immigration Detention Centers Concentration Camps?

Story Transcript

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ The United States is running concentration camps on our southern border and that is exactly what they are. They are concentration camps.

GREG WILPERT It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore. That, just now, was Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She was condemned for this video with Fox News, for example, saying that she should apologize to every Jew for comparing immigration detention centers in the US with concentration camps. Here’s more of what she had to say.

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ If that doesn’t bother you, I don’t—I have—like, we can have—Okay. Whatever. I want to talk to the people that are concerned enough with humanity to say that we should not, that “never again” means something. And that, the fact that concentration camps are now an institutionalized practice in the “home of the free” is extraordinarily disturbing.

GREG WILPERT Many organizations and individuals also rose to defend what she said, arguing that without making comparisons, one cannot learn from history, and one is doomed to repeat it. Jewish Voice for Peace, a US-based progressive Jewish organization with tens of thousands of members, published a short statement reminding people that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was sharing an article from the men’s magazine Esquire, which quoted journalist and concentration camp expert Andrea Pitzer who said, “There have been concentration camps in France, South Africa, Cuba, the Soviet Union, and— with Japanese internment— the United States. In fact, we are operating such a system right now in response to a very real spike in arrivals at our southern border.” Various right-wing and pro-Trump organizations found it easier to lash out at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than at Esquire Magazine, but this entire debate has drawn attention away from the actual story— the conditions under which refugees who arrive at the US border are kept. So to discuss this, we are joined by Aviva Chomsky. She is a Professor of History and Coordinator of Latin American Studies at Salem State University, and author of many books, the latest of which is Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal. Thanks for joining us again, Aviva.

AVIVA CHOMSKY Oh. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me on.

GREG WILPERT So let’s start with the obvious question. Do you agree that the conditions in which families are kept at near the southern border, could and should be called “concentration camps?”

AVIVA CHOMSKY Okay. So. I can answer that question really—I can give an answer on both sides of the question. On one hand, using that kind of terminology in the United States today is inflammatory because we have been taught falsely that “concentration camp” is a word that applies solely to the Nazi regime and to the death camps that were part of the system of the Holocaust, of the attempted extermination of the Jewish and other unwanted populations of Germany and the territories conquered by Germany during World War II. But on the other hand, we can also say that this is a very strategic and propagandistic use of the term “concentration camps because the term concentration camps has broader meaning than that. That is, the Nazi death camps are one historical example of concentration camps, but concentration camps have existed in many different places.

Basically, what a concentration camp is, is a place where a governing power concentrates a civilian population that has not been accused of or committed any crime, but rather imprisoning people, concentrating people not because they have been imprisoned for and judged and charged for committing a crime, but rather simply because of who they are, removing them from where they want to be and forcing them to live in some kind of a prison camp where the reason that they have been imprisoned is because of who they are. Now, this has happened over and over again in world history and in US history— the Nazi death camps being only one historical example.

Some of the examples we might even learn about if we’re studying US history at a mainstream high school classroom; for example, during the Spanish-American War, or the Cuban War for Independence, when the Spanish were trying to reconcentrate the Cuban population, they took the Cuban population out of the areas where they lived and imprisoned them in these huge concentration camps, prison camps. And some of the US propaganda trying to justify the US entry into the Cuban War of Independence, which we then came to call the Spanish-American War, was because of the Spanish policy of removing civilian populations and concentrating them in prison camps. So the United States, in that case, denounced the policy.

We did the same thing in the United States with the Japanese American population during World War II. And at that time, US government officials, the Supreme Court, openly called the Japanese internment camps concentration camps because civilians were being removed from their homes and concentrated in prison camps— not because they were being imprisoned for a crime, but simply because of who they were. So civilian populations being concentrated, imprisoned, in prison camps. They were not prisoners of war. They were simply imprisoned in these camps because of who they are. So the same thing is happening with immigrants who are being detained at the border. They are being detained because of who they are. And they are being concentrated in these camps where they are not allowed to leave, where they have not been accused of a crime. They are civilians. Many of them are women and children. They’re not prisoners of war because we’re not at war. They’re not prisoners because they are not being processed by the judicial system or have not been processed by any judicial system. They are simply being concentrated in these camps and in that respect, that very much, these are concentration camps.

GREG WILPERT Now, as someone who has studied the US immigration system, what do you think is the most worrisome or perhaps illegal aspect of keeping refugees under such conditions in these detention centers or in concentration camps? And what do you think needs to happen to change the system and to address the concerns that you might have?

AVIVA CHOMSKY Well, that’s a really big question. [laughs] So the United States has always made claims about “liberty and justice for all,” about “equal rights for all,” and those claims have always been false because there have always been exceptions. So when we use the word “all” in our legal system, in our Constitution, and our Declaration of Independence, we don’t really mean all because we always exclude certain groups of people. These people have not always been immigrants. In fact, during much of US history, immigrants have been the privileged classes in the United States because the exclusion was defined by race, not by immigration status. Now in the late 20th century, when many of the immigrants are racially-defined as different, they are racialized, immigration and race have been, sort of—The racial issues and the immigration issues are overlaid over each other in ways that are different now in the 21st century than they were say, two hundred years ago.

But the fact that certain people are racially-excluded has been a fact during every single moment of this country’s history since 1608. So, what’s wrong with that? Well we all know what’s wrong with that. Discrimination is wrong. Exclusion is wrong. Unequal treatment under the law is wrong. But that’s exactly what our immigration system does. Another piece of this puzzle that we need to understand is that most of the refugees who are being incarcerated in these concentration camps today are people who are fleeing places like Central America, especially the northern triangle of Central America— the countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, where the United States has been deeply, deeply involved for over a hundred years. To the extent that we can fairly call them separate countries—That is, their politics has been so influenced by the United States— military intervention, economic intervention, political intervention.

To say, well oh, those are just countries over there that have nothing to do with us and these people don’t belong here. Well, that denies the entire history. The United States would not be the United States without its interventions in Central America, the US companies that have been involved and continue to be involved in Central America, the minerals that we have extracted from Central America, the agricultural products that we have extracted from Central America, the maquiladoras, the clothes that we wear that are produced in Central America, the US companies that are profiting off of this exploitation of Central America. The United States would not be the United States if it were not for this long-term relationship with Central America. And every single person in the United States experiences this relationship on a daily basis in the food that we put in our mouths and the clothes that we put on our bodies. Central America is part of us.

And the amount of military aid, military interventions that the United States has poured into Central America—-So, the fact that people are fleeing Central America to the United States—That is, it’s really a false approach if we say, oh well, you know. That’s just other countries somewhere far away where bad things are happening and it’s not our responsibility to take care of these people. We have a common, integrated history and discriminating against people because they are Central American, is part of our system of exploitation of Central America that has been going on for over a hundred years, and continues today.

GREG WILPERT Now, just turning to something very recent as well, is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, just confirmed that it will begin an operation for deporting undocumented immigrants this weekend. On a Monday, President Trump had already announced the operation when he tweeted, “Next week, ICE will begin the process of removing millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way to the United States.” Now, ICE clarified that this weekend’s operation is actually targeting about 2,000 individuals who received warrants basically. So what do you think would be the effect of this move for the undocumented immigrants in the US, this decision that is to launch this kind of process of raiding their homes?

AVIVA CHOMSKY Like much of Trump’s policies, part of this is simply political theater. That is, we’re moving into the campaign season and he is trying to show himself as, I’m taking strong action on immigration. All of the threats against Mexico and then the much-flaunted signing of a deal with Mexico, which it turned out wasn’t a new deal at all, but were things that have been agreed upon by the US and Mexico long before. These high-profile raids, this obviously isn’t the first time that these kinds of high-profile raids have happened. They’re talking about people who already have open deportation orders, which means that they can be deported quickly. They don’t have to go through a court process. Most of the 10 or 11 million undocumented people in the United States don’t fall into that category. They’re targeting specific individuals. And it’s something that’s been going on. So part of it is the political theater. That is, how Trump is trying to play to his base and look good to an audience that wants to see action on targeting undocumented immigrants. Under the Bush administration, we saw the same kinds of things with some of the factory raids that were completely purposeless except for political theater.

But obviously, human lives are at stake in this political theater. That is, the winners— or they hope to be the winners— are our US politicians and the losers are people whose lives are destroyed so that politicians can, they think, make themselves look better to certain sectors of the population that are whipped up into an anti-immigrant sentiment. Immigration is caused by structural factors. If we want to change immigration—That is, is immigration a problem? I always say immigration is a problem not for the United States where immigrants contribute to the economy in innumerable ways, and the country’s economy would collapse if we got rid of immigrants. Immigration is a problem for immigrants. Immigration means that people are being pushed out of their homes, that countries are being destroyed, and people are fleeing, and that’s what the problem is. If we were to really look at the causes of the problem and try to solve it, we would actually be making people’s lives better and making immigration a choice rather than a necessity for many of the immigrants who would much rather stay home if they really had that option.

GREG WILPERT Okay. Unfortunately, I’m going to leave it there for now. I’m speaking to Aviva Chomsky, Professor of History at Salem State University. Thanks again, Aviva, for having joined us today.

AVIVA CHOMSKY Thanks for having me on. It’s a pleasure.

GREG WILPERT And thank you for joining The Real News Network.