America's Concentration Camps? There's a debate over what to call the facilities holding migrant asylum seekers at the southern border. We revisit an earlier controversy to help make sense of it.
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America's Concentration Camps?

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America's Concentration Camps?

America's Concentration Camps?

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

It's CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Gene's on vacation, so I'm here in studio with Adrian Florido.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Shereen, let's talk about the crisis at our southern border.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCASTS)

AILSA CHANG: Federal officials say the southern border is out of control.

RACHEL MARTIN: The surge of Central American migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. has put a strain on federal resources.

DAVID GREENE: The president has been threatening to close the southern border.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO: Migrant children are being held in grim and dangerous conditions at detention facilities.

WARREN BINFORD: Many of them are sleeping on concrete floors, including infants. Many of them are sick.

AUDIE CORNISH: The nation's chief border security official is set to resign. John Sanders announced today he'll step down as acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLORIDO: You know, in the last several months, Shereen, we've seen a huge number of migrants, especially from Central America, arriving at the southern border and asking for asylum. In May alone, border agents apprehended more than 130,000 people. And the Trump administration has been trying to make it much harder for these people to be allowed into the U.S. to have their requests for asylum considered.

MERAJI: Regardless, people are coming, and the U.S. government is detaining them at facilities we've been hearing a lot about. There are around 20,000 people being held, and according to the reporting, the conditions are horrendous.

FLORIDO: Yeah. And it's important to say, I think, that it's not just reporting that's revealed the conditions within these facilities - journalists. It's also the Department of Homeland Security's own inspector general, who found in a recent investigation that, among other things, people in some of these facilities were being packed into rooms that they didn't even have space to sit or lie down. They were in standing room-only cells. Now, last week Congress approved $4.6 billion to address what's happening at the border, but there are big questions about whether that money is going to be spent to improve these conditions we've been hearing about or if it's going to be used for something else.

MERAJI: And I think we need to clarify a few things here. These migrants that are seeking asylum - that's not illegal, No. 1.

FLORIDO: Right.

MERAJI: And border agents are detaining them along the border until they can be transferred elsewhere, either to detention centers run by ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or when it comes to the kids, facilities run by Health and Human Services.

FLORIDO: Right. But because there are so many people, there's just no room right now. And so they're ending up staying in these Border Patrol facilities - for weeks sometimes. Lawyers for these detainees said that kids were sleeping on concrete floors without enough blankets, weren't getting enough to eat. They hadn't been allowed to bathe or brush their teeth in weeks.

MERAJI: And there's been a huge outcry. People are really upset. And there's also been a lot of confusion in part because very few people are allowed to go and see what's going on in these facilities. We've sent Customs and Border Protection an interview request to ask all about this, and we haven't heard back.

FLORIDO: Despite the government's, you know, reluctance to talk about this, journalists have kept digging into the story. Just this week, ProPublica published a piece about a Facebook group filled with current and former Customs and Border Protection agents who were making racist and sexist comments and sharing these vile means.

MERAJI: Yeah. And New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the target of a lot of that Facebook nastiness from those agents. She's been tweeting about that ProPublica story and about what she saw when she visited the border, the conditions in what she's been calling concentration camps.

FLORIDO: Concentration camps - that is a very loaded, very serious term. So some Republican members of Congress, after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used that term, they condemned her for using it. Congresswoman Liz Cheney accused her of degrading the memory of the 6 million Jews who were killed in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. And though some of the loudest criticism has come from Republicans, it's not just a partisan issue. It's actually a debate that doesn't break down cleanly along party lines.

MERAJI: And that debate is what we're talking about on this episode - whether the use of concentration camp, something so closely associated with the horrors of the Holocaust, whether it does a disservice to the memory of that tragedy, or whether it's an accurate and appropriate way to describe what the Trump administration is doing on the border right now. We'll hear from a historian who wrote the book "One Long Night: A Global History Of Concentration Camps."

ANDREA PITZER: There were 40 years of camps that were called concentration camps before that death camp system was installed by the Nazis. And it's those early camps that were known as concentration camps - that's where I see us repeating history right now.

MERAJI: But first, Adrian, you reported on an earlier version of this debate over what to call the camps, where the U.S. government detained Japanese Americans during World War II.

FLORIDO: Right. And the story starts with this woman.

KAREN ISHIZUKA: My name is Karen Ishizuka, and I'm a writer and the chief curator at the Japanese American National Museum.

FLORIDO: In Los Angeles. And in the early '90s, she created an exhibition about the incarceration of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.

ISHIZUKA: We decided to call it "America's Concentration Camps."

FLORIDO: Both Ishizuka's parents and grandparents had been incarcerated in one of those camps during World War II. It was after her parents got out, after the war, that they had her. And like so many Japanese American parents, they rarely talked about what had happened.

ISHIZUKA: It was a time where you wanted to maintain a low profile. You didn't want to bring attention to your ethnicity. We were already demonized for not being white.

FLORIDO: That doesn't mean they didn't feel wronged. Of course they did. But Ishizuka says that her parents, like so many, found their own way to protest what had happened.

ISHIZUKA: We were all taught to be, like, 200% American in order to prove that it was wrong to have locked us up.

FLORIDO: Ishizuka says this reluctance to speak openly about what had happened, you could even see it in the terms that Japanese Americans did use when they did refer to these places.

ISHIZUKA: You know, I don't think, you know, anybody called them internment camps, relocation centers, concentration camps.

FLORIDO: They often used just one word.

ISHIZUKA: The vernacular is camp, is and was and still is

FLORIDO: Camp - a word that to Ishizuka sounded so innocuous, almost fun.

ISHIZUKA: And I think a lot of Sansei, a lot of people my age grew up thinking, well, camp? Summer camp? You know, because that's all we knew. So we were totally in the dark.

FLORIDO: So she says that for her generation, the Sansei, uncovering that history and naming it became really important. So during the '60s and '70s, young Japanese Americans began organizing pilgrimages to the camps across the western U.S. where their families had been held. They asked their parents to speak up. In the '80s, they convinced the government to pay reparations for what it had done. Ishizuka was a social worker at that time, and she helped older Japanese Americans work through their pain. In the early '90s, she got the job at the museum, and her first assignment was to create an exhibition about the World War II camp experience for people who knew nothing about it.

ISHIZUKA: But because of my own background - and I knew that so many of the former incarcerees, the former inmates, you know, still had scars and scabs from that experience. I wanted it to be meaningful to them as well.

FLORIDO: One way she decided to do that, she says, was through the exhibition's title. She researched the history of concentration camps, sought the advice of historians and academics, looked up the dictionary definition and decided, yeah, we're going to do it.

ISHIZUKA: We decided to call it "America's Concentration Camps."

FLORIDO: Now, Ishizuka was not the first person to use this term to refer to the camps where Japanese Americans had been incarcerated. Activists and academics had used it as far back as the '70s as a way to reject internment camp, one of the many euphemisms that the U.S. government had used to try to soften the severity of what it was doing when it incarcerated all those Japanese Americans. Another term the government often used was relocation centers. But the one that caught on with the general public and with the media was internment camp. And so one of Ishizuka's hopes with her exhibition's title was to help to shift what people called these camps.

ISHIZUKA: We knew that as the National Japanese American Museum, we had that responsibility to put it forth. But we also knew that it would be at a higher profile.

FLORIDO: The exhibit was a success. It was so successful, in fact, that Ishizuka started getting invitations from museums across the country to take it on tour. One of those invitations came from Ellis Island in New York. Ishizuka thought it would be a great opportunity to bring their message to an East Coast audience. She spent a couple of years preparing. But then about three months before the museum was set to open on Ellis Island, she got a letter.

ISHIZUKA: From the director there that said that if we did not take the term concentration camp out of the title, that we may not be able to mount it. And she gave the reasoning as it might offend the large Jewish population in New York.

FLORIDO: At the Japanese American Museum, Ishizuka and the rest of the staff scrambled. They went back and they asked their academic advisers and the museum's board and members of the Japanese American community what they thought - should they drop the term? Some said yes, but...

ISHIZUKA: I would really say the majority really urged us to stand firm. I remember Mel Chiogioji - he was a retired rear admiral of the Navy - you know, his rationale for keeping it was, why should we let anybody else tell us how to tell our own story?

FLORIDO: By this point, a lot of important people had gotten involved - Daniel Inouye, the senator from Hawaii, the secretary of interior which oversaw Ellis Island. And after a lot of back and forth, it was agreed that the exhibit's curators would meet with members of New York's Jewish community. This meeting was facilitated by one of the most important Jewish advocacy groups in the nation, the American Jewish Committee.

ISHIZUKA: We did not publicize it because one of the things is we did not want it to look like a squabble between two American ethnic groups. But it soon got out, and American Jewish papers reported on it, and then the mainstream media - the Times, Post - started reporting on it as well.

FLORIDO: The pressure to resolve the controversy was building. David Harris was and still is CEO of the American Jewish Committee, and he said that he went into that meeting against the idea that Ishizuka's exhibit should use concentration camps, even though there had been concentration camps well before World War II in Cuba in the mid-1800s, during the Boer War in South Africa at the end of that century.

DAVID HARRIS: In light of what concentration camps came to mean as a result of the Nazi era from 1933 to 1945, for us it was not enough to be able to say that the term had been used during the Boer War in South Africa. Hitler had redefined them.

FLORIDO: Despite this disagreement, the meeting was, by all accounts, friendly. Everyone wanted to come to a solution. Harris said the most important point he wanted to make to his Japanese American colleagues was that he thought there was a danger in using the term concentration camps.

HARRIS: You understand what we went through. We went - understand what you went through. Both were shameful, but they were different degrees of horror. And we don't want to dilute language to the point where it no longer has meaning.

FLORIDO: As disgraceful as the camps used to hold Japanese Americans were, he told them, there was a big difference between them and Nazi camps, where millions of people were murdered.

HARRIS: How do we convey that to the public at a time when history is fading and people may have no other education or knowledge and this may be the only exposure to the term?

FLORIDO: The solution came from a man named Benjamin Mead. He was a Holocaust survivor and, for a long time, an important and respected figure in the effort to preserve the memories of the Holocaust. And he suggested that the two sides come up with their own definition for concentration camp.

ISHIZUKA: So we did. We spent four hours-plus, you know, on one paragraph.

FLORIDO: Here's what it said.

ISHIZUKA: A concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they committed but simply because of who they are. Although many groups have been singled out for such persecution throughout history, the term concentration camps was first used at the turn of the century in the Spanish American and Boer Wars. During World War II, America's concentration camps were clearly distinguishable from Nazi Germany's. Nazi camps were places of torture, barbarous medical experiments and summary executions. Some were extermination centers with gas chambers. Six million Jews and many others, including Gypsies, Poles, homosexuals and political dissidents, were slaughtered in the Holocaust.

In recent years, concentration camps have existed in the former Soviet Union, Cambodia and Bosnia. Despite the difference, all had one thing in common - the people in power removed a minority group from the general population, and the rest of society let it happen.

FLORIDO: Both sides agreed that this definition would be included in the exhibition, and therefore its title, "America's Concentration Camps," would not change. It opened on Ellis Island in 1998. But despite the effort of Ishizuka and others, internment camps is still the most common term you hear to refer to them - even, Ishizuka says, within Japanese American organizations.

ISHIZUKA: They feel that in order to get the education across that this even happened, that they have to use terms that are more acceptable to ears that might be somewhat closed.

FLORIDO: Because concentration camp, she says, is still such a powerful term, so loaded, because it encompasses the enormous atrocity of the Holocaust, and it's hard for people to think of it in any other way. But Ishizuka thinks of it in another way. She feels like she has no choice but to use concentration camps to describe what happened to her community.

ISHIZUKA: To do otherwise is to really mitigate the injustice of the incarceration and thereby make it easier to happen again. I think that that's really the bottom line for me.

FLORIDO: That's why a couple of weeks ago she packed a bag and traveled to Oklahoma. She'd heard that the Trump administration was planning to use a former camp where Japanese Americans had been incarcerated to hold some of the migrants coming across the southern border. And so she went there to protest.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: After the break, we're going to speak with an author whose most recent book is about the history of concentration camps.

FLORIDO: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Shereen.

FLORIDO: Adrian.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH. Adrian, you spoke with someone who has a lot to say when it comes to what to call these detention centers. Her name is Andrea Pitzer, and she wrote a book about the history of governments around the world using camps to detain people en masse.

FLORIDO: Right. The book is called "One Long Night: A Global History Of Concentration Camps." And I asked her to first define the term concentration camp.

PITZER: Well, for the purposes of my book, I defined it as the mass detention of civilians without trial usually on the basis of identity, so could be political affiliation, race, ethnicity, religious belief. But it's about who you are rather than what you've done. They have a demonized population that becomes to be regarded as subhuman, a willingness on the part of the population to tolerate bad treatment of those identified by the government as a threat, to tolerate detention. Once detention is tolerated for a particular group, it tends to be used, the longer the camps are open, against other groups as well.

FLORIDO: And so based on that definition, do you agree that these border detention facilities we've been hearing so much about this week - that they're concentration camps?

PITZER: I do. I think when people hear that phrase, you know, Auschwitz pops to mind, and it kind of obscures everything else. And it should, given the history of the death camps in Nazi Germany. It should absolutely be the first thing we think of. At the same time, there were 40 years of camps that were called concentration camps before that death camp system was installed by the Nazis. And it's those early camps that were known as concentration camps - that's where I see us repeating history right now.

FLORIDO: Could you explain the difference between a concentration camp and a death camp?

PITZER: So concentration camps existed in a whole variety of forms between 1896 and I - in my book, I argue up to the very present, but certainly up to the beginnings of Auschwitz. The very first camp system in Cuba in the 1890s saw what's estimated to be about 150,000 people die, which was about 10% of the island population at that time. So just because something's a concentration camp and not a death camp doesn't mean that people are fine in it, you know, that they survived. So it's not so much that people don't die in concentration camps. They often do.

The difference with the death camps is that as the Nazis started taking massive amounts of territory in their eastward invasion during the war, they suddenly had - they went from one or 2% of their population being Jewish pre-war to these territories in which huge percentages of people were Jewish. And at first, they thought they would just sort of push them out to a reservation style, literally citing Native American reservations, and put them there for forced labor. But then it's too many. And so there was this decision on the Final Solution, and it was decided to create literal death factories. So there's - there is a real distinction there. And, again, nothing else in history looks like those death camps.

FLORIDO: Andrea, when you say that concentration camps are places where, you know, people are often held because they're part of a certain identity group, on the one hand, you have people, I think, who would say that what's happening at the border is not necessarily that because you have - we have migrants who are showing up at our border and needing to be processed.

On the other side, that there are people who would argue that what's happening there is coming from an administration where you have people like Stephen Miller, the president's adviser on immigration, who very much thinks of identity and what the United States should look like and who should belong and who shouldn't belong, sees that as a very important part of why we are implementing certain immigration policies. And I'm wondering if you have thought about how that fits into what's going on here.

PITZER: Well, I do. I think that we aren't doing this on the northern border, is first of all really important to note, that in addition to the wave of people that we've had this year, the increasing numbers, a lot of the most virulent policies were started or put in place before that surge happened. And so if you look back even further, the first declaration as a candidate that Donald Trump made was to slur Mexicans. Right from the beginning, there was a targeting of people south of the American border. And I think that that makes any effort to say this isn't at all related to identity pretty disingenuous.

FLORIDO: Do you think that the Trump administration is solely to blame, though? I mean, these camps didn't begin to exist when this administration came into office.

PITZER: No, I've said it before. All the way back to Reagan, every single administration at least back to Reagan - and, really, if you wanted to, you could probably go back 100 years - has a hand in the way that immigration has been used as a political football in which everybody wants to look tougher than the next person. And very few people, it seems, who are in leadership positions are actually regularly saying the things that we've known for a long time.

I went back and looked at when was the first study that I could find that talked about immigrant crime levels. And I literally found something all the way back in World War I that revealed that immigrants commit less crime than U.S.-born populations. And so this idea of the immigrant as a criminal threat, which is a very old idea, has been debunked for a century. And yet, it is still picked up. It is still used.

What happened when President Trump came into office, it appears with a lot of influence from his adviser Stephen Miller, is that detention became central to what was going to happen even more than it had been, that alternatives would not be considered, that we were going to militarize the border and we were going to criminalize border crossing even though it is completely legal to seek asylum. And so all those things have been put in place over time.

You see that with camps. Things can't just come out of the blue. Usually, it takes a polarization of society, some different policies, to even make it possible. It is really worth realizing that often when camps are set up and kept open, they devolve into worse things. And if we don't change the approach that we're taking to asylum seekers, I think we're going to end up with a lot more than, you know, a couple dozen people dead so far.

FLORIDO: Do you see this argument that toothbrushes and soap aren't necessarily requirements for safe and sanitary conditions being - fitting into that declining slope?

PITZER: I do. And, you know, the thing is - and this is, as much as anything, why I use the term concentration camp - is if we go back and look at these camps, you will be amazed at what's happening now that happened very similarly then. In the Boer camps in South Africa, what was then Southern Africa, in - around 1901, I think, is when this particular thing happened, Emily Hobhouse was a radical who went down and actually went into the camps, which was kind of unprecedented. And the stories she came back with were shocking.

And one of the biggest things that she wrote about and insisted on was that there was no soap. There was no hygiene for these children and that they were getting contagious diseases because of it. And could the government please provide ways for these people to keep clean? And the government basically said, they're filthy people. And then, eventually, there were more reforms. But there was a real dismissal of her calls for that. I mean, it's exactly the same stuff that we're seeing today.

FLORIDO: You know, for a lot of people, including people who are genuinely upset and angry about what is happening today in these facilities, according to the reporting we've been reading in the last couple weeks, you know, going as far as to call them concentration camps still feels like going too far because at some point, the definition did change, right? Like, concentration camp came to mean this other thing. And so they think that calling what's happening now at the border, for example, concentration camps is disrespectful to that history and to the power of what that term has has become. Don't they have a point?

PITZER: I think they absolutely have a point. And I don't think this is something that we should do lightly. I don't think that - you know, I am certainly not in any way minimizing the Holocaust. There is nothing in camp history that looks anything like those death camps that were created in the middle of World War II, and nothing should be compared to them.

I think the danger is to say you can't compare anything to the stuff that came before, and if you do, you somehow have to give them some other name that isn't what they were called in order to talk about that. If somebody wants to call it irregular detention, if they want to call it extrajudicial detention, sort of a detention of civilians outside the normal legal process, then I'm fine with that.

I think that there are certain groups for whom, you know, their mission is to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, to preserve it and keep it sacrosanct very specifically. And if those people don't want to go there, I completely understand that. I think there's also a reason for going there, which is the history of what happened in those early camps, I believe, tells us some stuff about what's going to come next. So I think there is a power, a useful power, in naming that is separate just from asserting, like, I want to call them this, and you have to call them this too. That's not what I'm saying.

FLORIDO: This is something that Japanese Americans have sort of tried to do with their own experience and sort of looking back at the history and trying to revise a bit of the way that we think about what for a long time has been called Japanese internment, right? Why do you think people attach so much importance to what we call these things?

PITZER: I think that a lot of times, we use these anodyne names like internment to really underplay what was done to a group of people. And while I think it's critical that we not compare what happened in Nazi Germany, the entire materiel and intent of a developed nation bent toward creating factories in which people could be killed as quickly and efficiently as possible - you know, there's nothing else like that - but there are a lot of things like those concentration camps that happened before the war. And if you say things like internment, then - and you never sort of pondered this term, concentration camp, which I do think Japanese American internment was, then you underplay the damage to the people inside, to the community.

It's been known - doctors have known for a hundred years what this kind of indefinite detention does to people - you know, shattered the Japanese American community as well. They had to sell off all their goods. And so I think that we have to be careful not to use simpler words to minimize what did actually happen to people. We don't want to compare it to the Holocaust, but we also don't want to minimize the damage that is done by this kind of detention.

FLORIDO: Andrea Pitzer is the author of "One Long Night: A Global History Of Concentration Camps." Thanks for joining us, Andrea.

PITZER: Thanks for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: And that's our show. It was edited by Sami Yenigun, Steve Drummond and me.

FLORIDO: It was produced by Sami Yenigun and Maria Paz Gutierrez.

MERAJI: Special thanks to John Burnett, who covers immigration and the border for NPR.

FLORIDO: And to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Leah Donnella, Karen Grigsby Bates, Gene Demby, Kat Chow, Kumari Devarajan and LA Johnson.

MERAJI: Our interns are Jess Kung and Michael Paulino.

FLORIDO: We'll see you next week.

MERAJI: Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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