Welcome back to The Long Version by Jonathan M. Katz. An adaptation of this edition was published by The Los Angeles Times. Get this newsletter in your inbox every week by signing up here:
Imagine you’re in a hotel room. It’s morning. The breakfast you ordered on the door-hang thingie has come. You sit down to your coffee and eggs and flip on CNN. Alisyn Camerota is on with a look of concern. “Once again,” she says, “we start with the latest from President Trump’s concentration camps. First let’s go to our round-the-clock team monitoring the situation in Dilley, Texas.”
Behind the split-screened correspondent is the outline of a complex. For you and millions of others, it has become the instantly recognizable symbol of an international crime: the barbed wire and stadium lights of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s South Texas Family Residential Center.
Your heart sinks as the field reporter recounts the latest updates: The deaths of a toddler and a teenager. Transgender, dissident, and mentally ill detainees being singled out for torture. A guard moves in silhouette against the horizon.
How can this still be happening? you wonder as you finish your coffee. Isn’t it illegal? How are we letting the president get away with this?
And then another thought: Can it get worse?
Your eyes track down to the counter plastered daily across the bottom of CNN’s screen: the estimated population being held in Trump’s camps and detention sites across the country.
It’s at 61,400. And rising.
‘Fear in Every Face’
Unfortunately, the only unrealistic part of that scenario is CNN devoting full-on, election-primary-style coverage to concentration camps in the United States. The rest is happening now:
Over 48,000 people are currently detained in ICE camps, a number a former official said “could swell indefinitely.”
The teenager who died was Carlos “Goyito” Hernández Vásquez. He’d tried moving from Guatemala to the United States to support his brothers, including one with special needs. Here’s his father.
Hernández is the seventh minor the feds admitted to dying on their watch since Trump took office. A two-year-old named Wilmer Ramírez died the week before.
Thousands are being brutalized in isolation cells, driven to “mutilating their genitals, gouging their eyes, cutting their wrists and smearing their cells with feces,” the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists just reported. Their crimes include being transgender, having a mental illness, or consensually kissing another detainee. One person was put in solitary for 41 days for organizing a hunger strike. Experts call this torture.
You might balk at my use of “concentration camp.” That’s good, it’s something to balk at. Hannah Arendt knew the concept too well: She was imprisoned by the Gestapo and later interned by the French ahead of the German invasion. She wrote that concentration camps ranged from the extreme Nazi extermination camps to “relatively mild forms, once popular even in non-totalitarian countries, for getting undesirable elements … out of the way.”
All have one thing in common, she wrote:
… the human masses sealed off in them are treated as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them were no longer of interest to anybody, as if they were already dead …
Earlier this year, attorney Martin Garbus spent a week inside Dilley helping families apply for asylum. Here’s how he described the process of being admitted to the camp:
The agents take them in their wet clothes, at first, to the “hielera,” the “icebox,” a refrigerated building, a large processing center, where they had to try to sleep on the concrete floor or sit on concrete benches under mylar blankets, prodded by agents all night and day, deliberately kept awake. Bathroom breaks are frequently not granted, or not in time, so both women and children often soil themselves … After the Hielera, they went to the “perrera,” or “doghouse,” a place where families were put in cages, cyclone fencing between them as though they were animals. But at least the chain link cages—dog kennels, really—were warmer, the mothers told me.
“[It] was an attempt to persuade these immigrants to turn back before they even reached a credible-fear interview with an asylum officer,” Garbus observed. “It was also a message to those who were still trying to cross the border.”
“I saw fear in every face I saw.”
It fits Arendt’s definition to a T.
The Uses of Euphemism
It takes work to get people not to care about this. Not a ton of work—just the right amount.
A year ago this time, Americans accidentally became aware the Trump administration had adopted a policy of ripping families apart at the border. Attention peaked around ProPublica’s discovery of a recording of imprisoned children sobbing:
It wasn’t hard for Trump to shove all that down the memory hole. Because attention focused on a single policy, he diffused the scandal by dragging his heels, then agreeing to throw whole families into camps together. Political reporters spilled buckets of 1s and 0s on irrelevant, campaign-style questions, like whether Obama was just as bad, or half as bad, or if Trump had just fucked up the rollout, and what it meant for the midterms. Then they moved on.
There are two things to note. One is that Trump’s aides built this system of racist terror on something that has existed for a long time. Dilley opened under Obama. And while total deportations actually decreased under Obama, removals rose. He harmed hundreds of thousands of families as pawns in a political game.
You might expect me to say something like, “Trump has made it worse.” But that would be taking way too narrow a view. Trump isn’t just adopting a draconian approach to illegal immigration—a situation that might suggest the recognition of an actual problem and openness to technocratic compromise.
No, Trump is not doing any of this because of illegal immigration—an issue that had been in decline for a decade before took office. His iceboxes and dog cages are part of an explicitly nationalist project. The goal is putting the country under the control of the right kind of white people. Trump has made it clear that he wants to stifle all non-white immigration, period. And the reasons aren’t hard to figure out. His administration just got caught using a literal question of immigration to suppress opposition votes and boost “Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.” The GOP simply can’t win national elections without doing that sort of thing anymore.
And as history shows, when a leader starts putting people in camps to stay in power, it doesn’t usually end with the first group they detain.
The only way Trump can get away with this is if most people aren’t paying attention. That’s where names come in. In the midst of the family-separation scandal, John Podhoretz accused those who invoked the specter of concentration camps of “self-righteous preening.” (I wrote a Long Version-style article at the time arguing why the term is necessary.)
Developments since have shown exactly why Podhoretz was wrong. Life behind the barbed wire is getting worse, yet attention has all but evaporated. There is still reporting on the detention centers by major outlets, including from CNN. But it is presented sporadically, as a niche issue, rather than as a central fact of a racist, lawless administration. Coverage gets framed as stenography of regime propaganda or reported from power’s point of view. It is easy to ignore.
The goal of concentration camps has always been to be ignored. The term itself is a euphemism. (“Oh, we aren’t ripping innocent families from their homes and imprisoning them to die of hunger and disease,” the Spanish seemed to say when they invented the idea in Cuba’s 1895 independence war. “We’re just concentrating them in a camp.”) When Franklin Roosevelt ordered Japanese-Americans interned in desert prisons, they used even more benign names, like the Manzanar Relocation Center.
You can see it in our own time. If the ICE camps had a more descriptively accurate name—“South Texas Child Prison and Torture Center,” anyone?—those permanent CNN cameras would get set up in no time.
That’s what the remote locations and official secrecy are about too. It’s why the Trump administration has gone to lengths to lie about its policies, deny journalists access, and silence critics. If we’re watching, they can’t get away with it.
History shows where burying a story like this can lead. It gives authorities time and space to do what they want. The Nazis took five years to use camps for the massive internment of Jews. It took eight, and the outbreak of world war, for the first extermination camps to open. Even then, they had to keep lying, claiming Jews were merely being resettled to remote work camps. That’s what the famous signs were for.
It doesn’t take a program of mass murder to turn a camp into a death zone. Hundreds of thousands died in the original Spanish reconcentración from malnutrition and disease.
I don’t know what would happen if news networks defied the administration’s program of distraction and lies. What if we shined a constant, glaring light on places like Dilley, Adelanto, Hutto, and the hundreds of other facilities where “undesirables” are being hidden away?
Perhaps people couldn’t disappear so easily into the hieleras. It might be harder to lie about the deaths of children for months.
Maybe the camps—and the people languishing in them as you read this—would be the first thing people thought of when they saw Trump scowling on TV.
The other option is to keep ignoring it, and leave it up to the people in power to decide what’s next. It’s a calculated risk. As Andrea Pitzer, author of one of the most comprehensive books on the history of concentration camps, recently noted:
This was updated and reprinted as an op-ed in the June 9, 2019, Los Angeles Times.
My piece on the history of concentration camps from last year (Slate)
Two major donors to Trump’s inauguration were the private prison companies CoreCivic and the Geo Group. (Speaking of euphemisms.) They are raking in nearly a billion dollars in taxpayer money running his concentration camps. (OpenSecrets)
When the military saw the photographs Dorthea Lange was hired by the federal government to take of U.S. concentration camps in the 1940s, they hid them for more than fifty years. You can see them here. (Anchor Editions)
Other things to read
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