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What Should We Do About Concentration Camps in Trump’s America?

Portland, Maine is welcoming a wave of migrants with kindness as the administration comes under fire for its cruelty at immigrant detention centers

Migrants detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in McAllen, Texas in 2018. (Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

Migrants detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in McAllen, Texas in 2018. (Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

 

In the past few weeks, about 300 African migrants traveled through Central America and Mexico to seek asylum in the United States, boarded buses in San Antonio, Texas, and rode for three days past corn fields, strip malls, and city skylines to what many hope will be their final destination—Portland, Maine, my hometown. 

The city manager called it a “very critical emergency,” but Portland’s mayor reframed it as an opportunity.

“I don’t consider it a crisis, in the sense that it is going to be detrimental to our city,” said Mayor Ethan Strimling. “We’re not building walls. We’re not trying to stop people. In Maine, and Portland in particular, we’ve been built on the backs of immigrants for 200 years, and this is just the current wave that’s arriving.”

Maine residents have donated more than $500,000 to support the asylum seekers—primarily refugees fleeing violence in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—and just across the bridge over Casco Bay, the South Portland city council passed a vote to contribute $40,000 to Maine’s Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project. Jason Owens, Maine’s chief of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, who’s spent most of his career on the southern border, said, “It’s very heartwarming to come up here and see this side of it and what American people are willing to do for their fellow man. The outreach is amazing.”

Meanwhile, conditions for other migrants are deteriorating. On May 31, Reuters reported that a government watchdog had found “dangerous overcrowding” at a border patrol processing facility in El Paso, Texas, with adult detainees in soiled clothes being held in “standing-room-only conditions” for days or weeks—66 percent of them held for longer than the seventy-two hours permitted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection policy.

“It’s very heartwarming to come up here and see this side of it and what American people are willing to do for their fellow man.”

Detainees at ICE facilities, both children and adults, are at high risk of sexual assault. And recently the Trump Administration argued in court that it was okay to house migrant children in cold, crowded cells and force them to sleep on concrete floors without access to basic hygiene products like soap and toothbrushes.

Earlier this month, the Office of Refugee Resettlement declared that it would no longer fund daily schooling, outdoor playtime, or legal services for migrant children, as several lawyers who inspected an overcrowded border station in Clint, Texas, reported filthy conditions and hungry children detained for sometimes almost as long as a month despite a law stipulating that they be transferred or released within seventy-two hours.

“In my twenty-two years of doing visits with children in detention, I have never heard of this level of inhumanity,” said Holly Cooper, a lawyer who co-directs the University of California, Davis, Immigration Law Clinic.

At least 2,737 children have been separated at the border, and at least twenty-two people have died in U.S. custody under the Trump Administration, including at least seven children.

George Takei, a survivor of the Japanese internment camps now famous for his role as Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek, wrote that at least “during the internment of Japanese-Americans, I and other children were not stripped from our parents.” Other survivors of the internment camps expressed horror when the Trump Administration recently announced its plan to turn Fort Sill in Oklahoma, a former internment camp, into an emergency shelter for 1,400 unaccompanied minors.

“I know what’s happening to these children will have a lasting impact on their mental health,” said psychotherapist Satsuki Ina, who was born in the Tule Lake Segregation Center. “Indefinite detention is a form of torture.”

Journalist Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, told Esquire these facilities fall under her book’s definition of concentration camps, places of “mass detention of civilians without trial.” The article’s author, Jack Holmes, points out that “not every concentration camp is a death camp—in fact, their primary purpose is rarely extermination, and never in the beginning. Often, much of the death and suffering is a result of insufficient resources, overcrowding, and deteriorating conditions.”

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has drawn criticism for condemning the use of the term “concentration camp” to describe the U.S. migrant detention centers. “Why bother learning about the Holocaust at all,” responded Rafi Schwartz in Splinter, “if the goal is simply to ossify its horrors as something that offers no contemporary roadmap for action?”

Even Mike Godwin, the lawyer who coined “Godwin’s Law” positing that any Internet conversation that goes on long enough approaches a comparison to Nazis or Hitler, agreed that the term “concentration camp” in this case is accurate.

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The Trump Administration may use language like “detainment facilities” to describe these holding facilities, but let’s call them what they really are: concentration camps.

In 2017, before the Trump Administration’s family separation policy was implemented, the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, a human rights organization based in New York, tweeted that there were “alarming parallels” between Trump and Hitler. Steven Goldstein, the center’s executive director, told Newsweek, “1930s Germany imposed a series of escalating steps of oppression, including demonization, discrimination, and isolation of vulnerable communities, that evoke what we are seeing today.”

Trump uses dehumanizing language to describe people of color. When stumping for the presidency, he described Mexican migrants as drug dealers, rapists, and murderers, and later, on the White House website, referred to immigrant gang members as “animals.” In early June, he used the word “invasion” to describe the influx of migrants and asylum seekers crossing the border.

In a June 17 op-ed for The Washington Post, former First Lady Laura Bush wrote that photos of children in cages and camps are “eerily reminiscent of the Japanese internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes of US history. . . . I moved away from Washington almost a decade ago, but I know there are good people at all levels of government who can do better to fix this.”

Both houses of Congress approved about $4.5 billion in emergency funding to address the humanitarian needs at the southern border, including $30 million to help communities like Portland support the influx of asylum seekers. And the House Appropriations Committee passed a separate bill that included $60 million for communities like Portland.

But this relief could still be bollixed up in the legislative process or be vetoed by Trump.

In addition, Maine Representative Chellie Pingree reintroduced a bill that would allow asylum seekers to begin working to support themselves and their families thirty days after filing their application instead of the 180 days they are currently required to wait.

In the meantime, there are several things that ordinary citizens can do. They can contact their representatives to ask what they are doing about the conditions in detention facilities. They can volunteer and/or donate to groups involved in the fight. The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, a California-based nonprofit, lists several “organizations actively working for just and humane border practices in the United States and Mexico.”

Other strategies:

  • Pledge your frequent flier miles to Lawyer Moms of America and Project Corazon, which have teamed up to help get pro bono lawyers and migrant families where they need to go. 
  • Launch a Dignity Not Detention Campaign in your state. You can learn more about that on the Freedom for Immigrants website. 
  • Write a letter to the editor to your local newspaper. These reach a broad audience and are often monitored by elected officials. You can find tips on the ACLU website.

In Maine, legislators, community leaders, nonprofits, donors, and volunteers, including immigrant Mainers—who know how hard it is to start anew, with nothing—are joining forces to welcome these migrants to our state.

“These are people who arrived here in Maine with their families after traveling thousands of miles over the course of many months to flee violence and escape hostility and brutality,” said Governor Janet Mills. “They’ve undergone this dangerous journey in pursuit of freedom and liberty, concepts and principles that are the cornerstone of our nation’s principles . . . .”

Americans often wonder why good Germans didn’t do enough to stop the Holocaust. But good Americans didn’t do enough to stop the Japanese internment camps on our very soil, and now here we are again.

The Trump Administration may use language like “federal migrant shelters,” “temporary shelters for unaccompanied children” or “detainment facilities,” to describe these holding facilities, but let’s call them what they really are: concentration camps. And let’s forge a new history for America—a story we can tell future generations—about how we stood up against hate, agitated for change, and welcomed the latest wave of immigrants with open arms.

I like to think that Mainers are some of the people lighting the way.

Jennifer Lunden

Jennifer Lunden is the 2019 Maine Arts Fellow in Literary Arts, and in 2012 was named Maine's Social Worker of the Year

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