Inhumane forms of immigrant mass incarceration weren’t rolled out by Trump alone, but we should still recognize the danger of the Homeland Security State’s rapid expansion and growing cruelty.
The ongoing furor over a drastic increase in the mass confinement of migrant families and children has forced people in the United States to cast a hard look at the immigration enforcement regime that has aggressively developed in recent years.
The discussion is increasingly recasting immigrant detention centers as U.S. concentration camps. This has brought questions of justice, human and civil rights back into focus — in contrast to the Trump administration’s narrow reliance on the question of law-and-order.
Prisons for detained migrants conform to the basic, literal meaning of a concentration camp: these are security enclosures where masses of people from a targeted community are isolated from the general population and subject to confinement, usually for political purposes. Deprived of liberty, legal protections, or medical care, those incarcerated in such camps see their lives reduced to a basic biological existence.
Sexual abuse, physical punishment, psychological trauma and even the forced injection of children with drugs are the daily reality for those captured at the border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers or abducted from their homes and workplaces by the Department of Homeland Security – Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or DHS-ICE.
While the term concentration camp is often dismissed as extreme or exaggerated given its connotation of Nazi Konzentrationslager like Auschwitz or Dachau — which could more accurately be called death camps or forced enslavement camps — concentration camps were widely used by Western governments throughout the early 20th century as a means to cope with insurgent populations in the colonies and waves of migrants fleeing war in Europe.
Now, in the 21st century, the U.S. immigrant enforcement regime has assumed monstrous proportions. The country is being progressively enveloped in a steel-clad mesh of stringent bureaucracy and inhumane facilities devoted to legalized violence toward immigrants — naturally, this has come in the name of security, sovereignty, and enforcing the law.
Euphemisms, Lies, and Mass Confinement
Like the fig-leaf covering Adam and Eve’s genitals in Renaissance paintings, a euphemism is a word or phrase meant to hide the true nature of something considered embarrassing or offensive. Euphemisms are common in our social interactions: We’re sleeping together; I’m visiting the water closet; he passed away; we’re downsizing the staff.
For politicians, euphemisms are the bread and butter of “talking-points” (propaganda) and serve to shield the state from public scrutiny and criticism. Authorities will describe repressive police state measures as necessary to public safety, while the elimination of public services is called balancing the budget. Likewise, militaries will refer to a blatantly imperialist war as a “humanitarian intervention,” while an indiscriminate bombing campaign and capture of enemy-held territory is an act of “liberation.”
In the world of criminal justice, solitary confinement and total isolation from human contact — a form of torture – takes place in the Security Housing Unit (SHU), a phrase that almost sounds like a type of condominium apartment.
Immigration-related U.S. concentration camps come in different varieties, each with its own preferred euphemisms: there are detention centers for adults, childcare facilities for young children ripped from their families; and for those incarcerated migrant adults (usually women) fortunate enough to remain with their children, there are Family Residential Centers – a cheerful term that makes it sound as if families are having a therapeutic retreat at Club Med rather than facing incarceration.
The Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, provides a good example of the concentration camps operated by the commercial prison corporation, GEO Group. Immigrant detainees who went on hunger strike last year describe the facility as riddled with filthy, exploitative and abusive conditions. Incarcerated migrants are given cheap, poor-quality food while being forced to wear soiled underwear. Medical care access is restricted and often administered by unqualified prison guards themselves; it’s not uncommon that prisoners die from treatable diseases like staph infection, pneumonia, or diabetes.
Those confined to such camps “temporarily” spend much of their time with no light at the end of the tunnel, as immigration court proceedings face repeated delays without explanation. Forced to languish in horrendous conditions for an indefinite period, prisoners inevitably fall into a state of deep despondency that sometimes leads to suicide. In other cases, prisoners who wage hunger strikes face punitive detention and physical abuse. Prisoners are also expected to take part in manual labor tasks, where they are paid $1 per hour to take care of the upkeep of the facilities, drawing comparisons to enslaved prison labor.
At “childcare facilities,” young children ripped from their families’ arms are kenneled in wire-cage compounds or encamped in overcrowded former Wal-Marts where they are subject to 22-hour lockdown and given only two hours of fresh air — effectively amounting to conditions of punitive incarceration for children as young as seven years old.
Even toddlers under the age of five have been placed in three so-called “tender age shelters” located in Texas, with a fourth compound planned for Houston at a former warehouse slated to be re-purposed into a “permanent unaccompanied alien children program facility. ”During the Second World War, the government vocabulary was riddled with similarly clean, bureaucratic euphemisms that obscured the persecution of a community seen as a hostile and inherently “alien” minority: Japanese immigrants and Japanese-descended citizens of the U.S.
The Wartime Precedent: Japanese-American Incarceration
On February 19, 1942, long-seething anti-Asian racism and the Imperial Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor culminated in the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The order gave xenophobia the seal of approval as official state policy and decreed the “evacuation” or forced removal of 120,000 U.S. residents of Japanese ancestry from their homes. Over two-thirds of those impacted were U.S. citizens, including children.
The mass incarceration of Japanese-descended families was justified on the basis of a fear of sabotage by a yet-to-be-exposed “fifth column,” as well as claims by military authorities that Justice Department investigations were unable to keep pace with wartime national-security needs. However, Depression-era white farmers also saw Japanese Americans as a threat to their economic interests and had clamored for stripping citizenship from the “Japs.”
Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were detained and placed in assembly centers (temporary detention centers) and relocation centers, which were at the time depicted as akin to“summer camps.” In reality, these were concentration camps in the middle of harsh desert climates, which were surrounded by guard towers and barbed-wire fences, where Japanese-descended prisoners were overseen and routinely abused by U.S. Army personnel equipped with machine guns and even tanks.
By January 2, 1945, the camps were closed; not a single incarcerated Japanese had been successfully prosecuted as a spy or agent of the Japanese government. Yet thousands of
Japanese Americans incarcerated at the notorious Tule Lake Segregation Center in California had already been coerced into renouncing their U.S. citizenship, and were subsequently deported en masse back to a Japan that was shattered by war.
Descendants of incarcerated Japanese citizens and immigrants have struggled hard in recent years to ensure that wartime mass-confinement is described in terms that accurately reflect the unjust nature of their experience. In 2013, the Japanese American Community League responded to criticism over the use of the term “concentration camp,” stating:
Misleading government euphemisms like relocation camp, assembly center, and internment camp should no longer be an insurmountable obstacle to understanding. Ridiculous notions that we were being protected or pampered will diminish.
Honest terms like American concentration camp, incarceration camp, illegal detention center, forced removal, and others, can now truthfully tell a story: How the government used language to cover up the denial of constitutional rights, the racism, forced removal, incarceration, and oppressive conditions directed against 120,000 innocent people of Japanese ancestry.”
By 2015, Republican then-candidate Donald Trump began floating the idea of a database of Muslim Americans to prevent, “until we are able to determine and understand,” the alleged threat of “horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad.”
When asked if he would have supported the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans, the former reality-TV star answered that it may have been an option he would have favored. He also suggested that the concentration camps may have played a role in the U.S. victory over Japan. Trump explained:
I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer … It’s a tough thing. It’s tough.. But you know war is tough. And winning is tough. We don’t win anymore. We don’t win wars anymore. We don’t win wars anymore. We’re not a strong country anymore. We’re just so off.”
‘90s Roots: White “Nativist” Anxiety and the Neoliberal Offensive
Aside from the deeply racist, white-supremacist roots of the United States as a whole, Trump-style xenophobia and anti-immigrant racism became a major phenomenon in the 1990s, when mass-media outlets and right-wing politicians filled Americans’ heads with lurid tales of the threat posed by brown-skinned foreigners. War and terrorism in the Middle East flooded headlines as the Gulf War in Iraq and resistance to Israel in Palestine and Lebanon raged.
Meanwhile, at the southern U.S. border, tens of thousands of Mexican migrants poured through as a result of the desperate conditions and economic chaos unleashed by the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 and previous neoliberal policies foisted on pliant Mexican governments by the World Trade Organization (WTO). NAFTA led to a major influx of investment in Mexico by Canadian and U.S.-based multinationals, yet the net effect was the plundering of the country’s resources and wealth, the devastation of its agricultural sector and rural regions, and a huge uptick in unemployment and poverty in the country.
As scholar Richard D. Vogel wrote in his 2007 meticulously-researched essay, Transient Servitude:
U.S. financial and political intervention in the national life of Mexico during the 1980s and 1990s, often carried out through the WTO, has pauperized the Mexican working class. It is they who have had to suffer the brunt of the mandatory austerity programs, strict debt restructuring, and privatization initiatives that were imposed on Mexico in the 1980s after the credit binge of the Mexican bourgeoisie during the previous decade. The result of this foreign intervention has been widespread unemployment and displacement from the land that has produced onerous hardship and sparked internal migration from the interior of Mexico to the industrialized border region and to the United States.”
Unauthorized migration from Mexico became a driving force for nativist resentment and racism among white workers, resulting in a push for anti-immigrant laws like California’s Proposition 187 ballot initiative in 1994. White workers found convenient scapegoats in the Mexican undocumented workforce, despite the fact that it was U.S. capitalism as a whole that had undercut their jobs and living standards through the search for cheap labor in Mexico and other offshore locations.
The U.S. responded to the nativist clamor by militarizing the U.S. border — resulting in the deaths of thousands of border-crossers who died in the harsh frontier climate — and by conducting showy Border Patrol operations and raids such as 1993’s Hold the Line in San Diego and 1995’s Operation Gatekeeper in El Paso, which did little to stem the flow of migrants. However, the generally lax open border policy provided employers and corporations with access to a huge pool of cheap labor to tap into, handsomely benefiting a then-booming U.S. economy. By 2005, about 12 million undocumented migrants — over half of whom were Mexican — resided in the United States.
The 2006 implementation of the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA, now CAFTA-DR) had a similarly negative impact on development in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, whose governments each signed. Rural migrants were displaced and found no employment in cities, fueling the growth of organized crime and acting as a sharp push factor for migration to Mexico and the United States.
Subsequent administrations’ security agreements with right-wing governments and imperialist meddling — such as the Obama-Clinton State Department’s success in overthrowing left-populist Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in June 2009 — further exacerbated the instability and misery plaguing Central America, creating an inexorable current that continues to tens of thousands of desperate migrants to the doorstep of the southern U.S. border in their life-or-death bid for asylum.
“Fortress America” and the Bipartisan Construction of DHS-ICE
The double standards inherent in U.S. partisan politics have led some to believe that concentration camps were reintroduced on such a broad scale under Trump, when in fact the mass confinement of asylum-seekers and non-citizens was a daily reality under the administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who both oversaw the expansion of the sprawling DHS machinery.
Indeed, ever since the Clinton administration’s 1996 Immigration Act, minor misdemeanor convictions are enough reason for even legal permanent residents to be deported.
This history is often ignored by liberal critics of the Trump regime, owing in no small part to his absolute disregard for the multicultural sensitivities of his predecessors who built the immigration enforcement apparatus. The president has no qualms about resorting to blatantly dehumanizing rhetoric when describing whole categories of asylum-seekers as “animals” that are “infesting” the United States, drawing comparisons between the right-wing U.S. leader’s political ideology and that of Nazi Germany.
Yet Trump is merely picking up the baton that was passed to him, albeit with a relish that appears to be both calculating and visceral.
After September 11, 2001, the U.S. was pushed over the brink by hysteria over the fear of another spectacular terrorist attack. Muslim Americans and immigrant communities from Asia, Africa and the Middle East became the target not only of racist attacks on the streets, but also of anti-terrorism bills like the USA PATRIOT Act. The act significantly widened the ability of immigration agents to conduct mass-detention sweeps of terrorism suspects, while allowing for the mandatory detention of non-citizens suspected of terrorism for up to 48 hours after arrest.
In 2003, the PATRIOT Act was followed by the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which consisted of three separate bureaus: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and Citizen and Immigration Services (CIS). ICE began to extend its facilities, field offices and subfield offices across the country.
In June, 2003, ICE introduced its 10-year strategic enforcement plan, Operation ENDGAME. The plan called for information sharing across government agencies while also explicitly calling for the forcible removal of the entire unauthorized migrant population of 12 million people from the United States by 2014. In a memorandum describing the program, ICE Office of Detention and Removal Operations (DRO) director Anthony Tangemann stated:
DRO provides the endgame to immigration enforcement and that is the removal of all removable aliens. This is also the essence of our mission statement and the ‘golden measure’ to our successes … We must strive for 100% removal rate.”
Obviously, the plan was never fulfilled, yet the Obama administration stubbornly pushed forward in the fortification of ICE as a highly-funded, fully-staffed and largely unaccountable organization with facilities and contracted privately-operated concentration camps dotting the entire country.
While supporters of Obama will quickly point to his 2013 granting of temporary relief to non-prioritized unauthorized migrant youth, in the form of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), immigration-rights advocates will be just as quick to point to his introduction of Secure Communities: A Comprehensive Plan to Identify and Remove Criminal Aliens (SCOMM).
SCOMM, which was guided by the goals stipulated in Operation Endgame, cleared the way for ICE to deport hundreds of thousands of unauthorized migrants through biometric data-sharing between federal immigration authorities and thousands of local jails — leading to the deportation of people convicted of minor crimes such as driving under the influence or the possession of small amounts of drugs.
SCOMM was eventually phased out by Obama owing to public pressure, only to be revived by the Trump administration. Obama’s campaign promises to reform the U.S. immigration enforcement regime were never fulfilled and instead, around three million were deported on his watch – earning the former president the ignominious title “Deporter-In-Chief.”
The Danger of Ignoring Homeland Security State Cruelty
Amid the exponential growth of the federal government’s need for jails, encampments, and kennels for migrant families, immigration-related concentration camps are increasingly being normalized by an unashamed Republican Party with Trump as its capo and ideological lodestar. Even mainstream news hosts like Laura Ingraham of FOX News have audaciously described incarceration facilities for children as “essentially summer camps.”
And on Wednesday — lost in the fanfare of his apparent family-separation feint — Trump issued an executive order extending the ability of ICE to incarcerate unauthorized migrants from 20 days to an indefinite period.
The United States government has long maintained the largest and most technologically advanced system of mass confinement in human history. Over time, a growing component of this system has consisted of new migrant concentration camps.
It’s about time that we recognize what led the U.S. to this point and where that path may lead. Even the most superficial reading of history reveals how in times of crisis, legal rights taken for granted as permanent or foundational vanish like a puff of smoke when security threats and a push to restore “law and order” casts a dragnet into civilian populations.
In 1973, constitutional scholar Alexander Bickel offered a prescient criticism of the concept of “citizenship as the tie that binds the individual to government and [serves] as the source of his rights,” noting that the right to citizenship can easily be revoked at the will of the state:
A relationship between government and the governed that turns on citizenship can always be dissolved or denied … No matter what safeguards it may be equipped with, it is at best something that was given, and given to some and not to others, and it can be taken away. It has always been easier, it always will be easier, to think of someone as a noncitizen than to decide that he is a nonperson.”
As history teaches us, threats to the nation — both external or internal — can suddenly or gradually change. Today’s flash-in-the-pan monster at our door might be migrant “animals” from Latin America, but tomorrow it may take the form of anyone or any group who threatens or disrupts social order — be it a religious group, a national minority, the swelling homeless population, the politically non-compliant or any other class of people criminalized by a government that exclusively caters to the needs of capital.
Disoriented by sensationalist propaganda presented as objective news or informed commentary, U.S. citizens gripped by anxiety and fear eagerly cheer on the promise of misery for the “alien” as a means to ensure fortune and safety for the “native.” Blinded by the false pride found in white supremacy and the nostalgic idyll peddled by Trump and his cohort, “conservatives” applaud as new walls, “residential centers” and open-air penitentiaries for “illegals” are constructed in their hometowns.
Trapped in a daze of patriotic fervor, supporters of the punitive immigrant policy regime under Trump remain oblivious to the consequences of their faith in state violence guided by policies of official bigotry.
And as for the rest of us, wringing our hands and expressing outrage alone will get us nowhere in terms of preventing systematic cruelty and state terror. Instead, we should continue to develop a serious analysis of the overall situation and organize to defend our basic rights before the windows of opportunity are bolted shut.
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.
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