Concentration camps in America? Author Andrea Pitzer reminds us they already exist

Concentration camps have a long history in America, says author, and Donald Trump is testing them out right now

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 27, 2018 7:00AM (EDT)

U.S. Border Patrol agents take Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. (Getty/John Moore)
U.S. Border Patrol agents take Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. (Getty/John Moore)

Donald Trump's administration enacted an intentionally cruel policy of stealing children from the families of refugees, migrants and immigrants. While that policy has officially ended, the news media has moved on to other stories and the American public en masse is distracted and overwhelmed by the Trump regime's strategy of chaos, hundreds of children may never be returned to their families. In total, the Trump administration has likely violated human rights and international law while again denying the courts and standing against public opinion in the worst ways. This is one more step in the Trumpian campaign against American democracy.

The practical machinery of this administration's war on immigrants, migrants and refugees is a network of concentration camps. That term may sound shocking, but it shouldn't. While "concentration camps" evokes images of the Nazi Holocaust and death factories such as Auschwitz, concentration camps also have a long history in the United States and around the world.

How is the use of concentration camps normalized? What groups have been selectively targeted for being placed in concentration camps and other detention centers? How does Trump's personal cruelty and racism factor into the expanded use of concentration camps in the United States against brown and black people? What types of people would voluntarily work in concentration camps? How are Donald Trump's ICE enforcers being socialized and conditioned into the practice of cruelty?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Andrea Pitzer. She is a journalist and author of "One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps." Pitzer's writing has also appeared in print and online at Vox, Slate, USA Today, The Washington Post and elsewhere.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How did this moment with Donald Trump and his movement come into being?

Existing fault lines and deep social problems in America that have existed since the birth of the country converged, I would say since the 1960s and civil rights shifts. A part of the country has never fully adjusted to or accepted the changes of the 1960s and the civil rights movement. In addition, the role of Fox News, the Tea Party and the Republican "Southern strategy" created this movement with Trump and our current political moment.

Donald Trump is a symptom of the crisis and not the cause of the crisis. Of course, he's a really terrible person. Trump is also a very dangerous person because he does not even understand what a president does, let alone how the country is supposed to work. He also does not understand the history of the country. In total, all of his impulses are authoritarian. We're not in a great place.

Given Donald Trump's obvious racism and how he has empowered white supremacists both in his administration and in the general public, do you think it was inevitable that there would these concentration camps for nonwhites at the border?

It could go either way. In talks that I've been giving about my book, "One More Night," which is a global history of concentration camps, people have been asking me, "What do you think the next camps might be? What are the danger signs, given what is taking place in America with Trump?"

I've said that in terms of the United States a lot of the infrastructure is already in place. I am not referring to the FEMA trailers that people were afraid were going to be turned into camps, that you often hear about in various fringe conspiracy circles. I am referring to the detention centers that have been used a lot along the southern border as well as in other parts of the country. The conditions in those detention centers are horrible. They were awful under Obama. They were awful under Bush. They were also awful under [Bill] Clinton before him.

We have a long, unbroken history of having border detention facilities in which human rights are at best a secondary thought and in which there's often actual abuse happening. We have this idea that by punishing people who are coming over the border that we're going to stop border crossers.

We know this doesn't work. But part of the dynamic that happens -- which is taking place all over the world -- is the idea that by punishing people there is going to be a resolution to a social problem. This does not happen. It just allows people who want to punish people to do that.

What you saw with Trump is that these terrible conditions were already in place and he is willing to make them much worse. We know for a fact that under the Obama administration, someone had brought up at one point, "Should we separate parents and children as a deterrent?" But the Obama administration decided that strategy would be inappropriate and unacceptable.

It's clear now that that the guardrails that kept prior administrations from executing deliberate, broad, horrible policies have been removed. Those are off. We as a people are at risk more now than ever before because it's clear that Trump would be willing to do such horrible, norm-breaking things. He said as much when he was running for president as a candidate. Trump wasn't sure that the interment of  Japanese-Americans was necessarily a bad idea. He also wanted the Guantánamo Bay prison [to stay open].

Trump said, "Let's send more people to Gitmo." He also said, "Let's do a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding." Trump was not hiding any of these things. Many people in the public and media thought it was just some sort of blowhard TV-personality rhetoric he was using. But what we've seen since Trump has come in is that if he can get away with these things he will be more than happy to punish all kinds of vulnerable groups.

There is also the role of Trump's voters that must be highlighted. They are accountable as well. I have argued repeatedly -- and the data is there to support this claim -- that Trump's voters wanted to hurt people, nonwhites in particular, and that's why they voted for him. Do you think that's a fair read?

For Trump it is clear that power for him means the ability to punish and the ability to inflict pain and harm. I can't diagnose him clinically, but just in terms of when we see Trump talk about power and what you can do with power, it is never that power can intervene and do good things. It is always to punish, to come back hard at somebody, to inflict distress and pain.

There has been some interesting research which shows that people who have a more authoritarian temperament possess a willingness and desire to vote for people who will inflict harm on whoever the designated out-group is.

We have Trump at the top, with a willingness to be punitive, and then at the bottom there are Trump followers who want exactly that. They want him to punish people they view as second-class or the Other.

They want him to be their voice in punishing people. But in between you have the people who have various levels of skill and willingness to do terrible things. So you have a Stephen Miller type who seems very interested in immigration and in doing everything he can to limit brown and black people from entering the country or from being in the country in substantial numbers. You have Jeff Sessions, who understands way more than Stephen Miller does about how the U.S. government actually works. Sessions has a really bad history with how he views and treats African-Americans.

He's someone who's quite dangerous in that sense because he actually knows how policy moves and what's possible. Stephen Miller will say horrific things, but Jeff Sessions knows how to be quiet and to manipulate the system. And there is another problem: Trump is putting judges in place who are willing to give executive power an even broader unrestrained reach. This is very dangerous in terms of what we know from history about detention and imprisonment.

How do we define what a "concentration camp" is? What are some examples from American history?

To even begin to think about what's happening on the border with concentration camps you have to know some history that has been a bit forgotten by most people. When people hear "concentration camp" they think of Auschwitz. They think of death camps and gas chambers and mass murder. But before 1933, when the Nazis came to power, there was almost 40 years of history with concentration camps. The term was first used in connection with mass civilian detention without trial.

This was detention without trial usually on the basis of ethnicity or class or political party or race, and sometimes religious beliefs. This actually happened in Cuba in the late 1800s. This was the first example, and the United States learned from it very quickly. The United States would use concentration camps in the Philippines. The British used them against Boer women and children in South Africa. The Germans used similar camps in Namibia. The roots of this phenomenon were not death camps at all. Concentration camps were made to detain people during some kind of a military crisis.

READ MORE: Is a senior Air Force general using his power to spread far-right Christian nationalism?

Then during World War I you had "internment" -- which is what we call it now -- but at the time they were called concentration camps. People were locked up around the globe. This was done not on [the] basis of anything they'd done but because they were considered to be a foreign enemy. It really normalized the camps. Consequently, when the Soviets started locking their own citizens in gulags and when the Nazis started imprisoning fellow Germans, it was not seen as horrific and unprecedented.

What is happening on the United States' southern border fits the definition of concentration camps. The separation of parents and children is a specific twist on it. But again, America has a long history of separating parents and children with people who do not have full citizenship. This was done to black people during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and then on plantation slave labor camps and auctions. It was also done to Native Americans.

And of course we must highlight what happened to Japanese-Americans as well. American exceptionalism creates a type of amnesia for too many people.

There is an idea that America is a tremendously positive force. I would largely agree with that argument. This is the idea free speech and the idea of limits on detention, the idea of democracy, the idea of equal treatment of women, the idea of enfranchising people that were disenfranchised.

This has been a motivating factor for democracy activists around the globe for a very long time. But what America has actually done, as opposed to what the idea is, has sometimes been really horrific. That's been part of the history since the very beginning of the country. That's the national amnesia which leads people to not learn from past mistakes.

Japanese-American internment is a great example. There is this common claim that "people were scared" and "didn't know better" when the decision to put Japanese-Americans in interment camps was made. I have studied this history. People did know better.

The government commissioned a naval intelligence officer to write a report after the Pearl Harbor attack. He very clearly wrote that the United States government already knew about the most dangerous people in the Japanese-American community who might actually be spies, and there were very few of them, that there was no threat from the larger community and it would be tremendously destructive to intern everybody. Even J. Edgar Hoover thought internment shouldn't happen on a universal basis. Franklin Roosevelt at first did not want it. Eleanor Roosevelt was very much against it. The attorney general at the time was also against it. It was a cynical manipulation of fear and anxiety by politicians who benefited from these camps. America locked up thousands of people without any cause or reason.

We saw it again after 9/11. Courts were incredibly deferential to the fight against the war on terror when we really upended a lot of our biggest ideals. After 9/11, we returned to torture.

What do we know about the people who actually work the machinery that makes concentration camps function?

I have talked to guards in a number of different current and former camp settings. For instance, I talked to soldiers at Gitmo who were guarding prisoners there. I snuck into Rohingya camps in Myanmar.

I've talked to people about their roles in these camps. I've also, of course, looked historically at some of the dynamics of guards and who's willing to do this. There are a few answers. If the state is really successful at mobilizing and propagandizing the population, these people will think that they are serving a good cause, a necessary cause, a moral cause by participating in the work of these concentration camps and detention centers.

In addition, the more successfully the people who are doing these things can be separated emotionally and individually from the prisoners, the detainees or the people who were to be killed, the more successfully the guards, bureaucrats and other agents can be convinced that they're doing something good. The goals of these systems are often to isolate the two groups from each other so much that the system doesn't become vulnerable to uprisings.

What I found is that the people who do these things are not that different than you or me or anybody else. If you appropriately harden a police force, as I think ICE is being hardened right now, there are a lot of people that will join up. It's a culture that's passed on and becomes normalized, and I think we've been seeing that with ICE and the family separations that started before the camps.

There is also another dynamic at work here with how this behavior gets normalized: The more ICE and its agents feel loathed, the more they will embrace the rationale driving their behavior and treatment of immigrants, refugees and others. Internally, they will tell themselves that people don't understand that they're actually doing something that's honorable and good. Then instead of moving away from that kind of behavior, many of them will move toward it.

What do we know about the corporations and businesses that profit from these concentration camps and other detention centers?

Each camp system takes on local societal characteristics. In the United States black and brown people have historically been marginalized. They will be the groups most likely targeted. The other part is that in a capitalist society business is going to come in and seek profits. Big business has already infiltrated the regular prison detention system, and now we see it with extra-judicial detention as well. Moreover, it is very problematic where there are going to be private businesses working invisibly because they're going to be on military bases.

They're going to have absolute control over who sees these camps and who sees the people running them, and nobody is going to get a fresh look at the conditions. All these administrative and business actors will have a small role to play which collectively is very dangerous and damaging because it diffuses responsibility and makes public transparency very difficult.

If you were going to do focus groups or panels where you speak with Republican voters about why these concentration camps are an affront to human dignity and human rights, what would you say to them?

I would probably go through the rhetoric that's been used but I would try to avoid talking about Nazis. Once you use those examples people put barriers up, because it is as if you are saying that Trump is Hitler. I would probably use some of the other examples -- which had bad enough results themselves -- about how populations were moved to do terrible things, the public went along with it and then people regretted it afterward. I think just taking them through some of those examples that are farther from home to start with and then moving to how it is unfolding on the border today.

There are some who will still want to punish immigrants and migrants because they feel like somebody is taking advantage of them. Someone who thinks that way will blame other people for their problems instead of the government and their leaders. There are people whose minds you just cannot change because they have been conditioned by propaganda. These are the same psychological tools that have been used for the last hundred-plus years to turn people against other groups and then put them in concentration camps.

Today's hottest topics

Check out the latest stories and most recent guests on SalonTV.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega