The US government is detaining thousands of migrants, in what can only be described as a system of 21st century concentration camps. Justin Akers Chacón—professor of U.S. History and Chicano Studies in San Diego and author, with Mike Davis, of No One is Illegal—examines the background to this horrific story, suggesting that Trump’s detention centres are just the latest in a long line of racist systems of incarceration in the US.
The US government is forcing hundreds of thousands of migrant and refugee people and their children into squalid, unsanitary, and unsafe prison camps. Haunting images are emerging of children staring through multiple layers of razor-wired fencing, people clustered under “space” blankets to escape the blistering heat, and desperate people huddled under pieces of tarp in open-air camps where they are denied showers, a change of clothes, diapers, soap, and toothbrushes for weeks at a time. A deeper look into the whole detention complex in the US, from the camps to the detention centres to the child shelters, shows that we are facing a 21st century system of concentration camps in the United States.
There is an outburst of protest emerging against the migrant and refugee detention centres and camps around the country, cohering around the slogan of “close the concentration camps.” The characterisation of migrant detention centres, facilities, and encampments as “concentration camps” reflects in who is being targeted, how they are being detained, and the conditions of violence, abuse, and degradation that is occurring.
The refugees that are being incarcerated in prison camps in the border region are primarily Central American. Mexicans, Central Americans, Caribbean people, Africans, and other primarily people of colour make up the majority of those locked up in ICE detention centres across the country. In general, these groups are being targeted for immigrant persecution for who they are—the intersection of their race, class, and nationality—and not for what they did. Asylum-seekers are not breaking any law and the majority of those in ICE lock-up did not commit any crime. If they did, it was most likely to be minor or directly related to their migration, as there are virtually no legal routes for migrants with limited resources.
These are the only segments of the immigrant population being held in detention camps with inadequate facilities, subjected to abuse and violence by guards and other personnel, and being denied basic resources with the specific intention to inflict hardship, suffering, and even death.
The immigration policy regime is opaque, labyrinthine, and purposefully dysfunctional. A steady stream of executive orders, constant internal policy shifts, insular Department of Homeland Security operations, lack of meaningful oversight, conflicting jurisdiction purviews, congressional inaction and impasse, and the virtual autonomy and impunity of armed agents combine to create a sense of chaos for those who have to navigate it. Within this environment, the Trump Administration has hastened to criminalise all forms of migration, and turn the enforcement apparatus into a juggernaut that is committing state violence against targeted populations in broad daylight. But this is not the first time.
A continuation of US history
The US state has a long history of targeting, criminalising, and incarcerating people—by race, ethnicity, and nationality—into different forms of concentration camps. This includes: the forced removal of Native Americans from their lands and their detention on reservations, with their children separated into forced labour “Indian schools”, 150 years of keeping enslaved African people in forced-labour plantations with their children separated and sold off, another century of keeping African-Americans in prison camps through racialised criminalisation under Jim Crow, and the internment of Japanese and Japanese-American people forced into detention camps during World War Two.
US forces have also established concentration camps outside of US territory. This includes the brutal repression of Filipinos during the US war of colonisation (1899-1902) and the forced “re-concentration” of tens of thousands into squalid camps to punish supporters of the Filipino independence movement.
Between 1991 and 1993, the US government detained Haitians at its Naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Haitians were fleeing political persecution after a US-sponsored coup against democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide brought a military dictatorship to power led by general Raoul Cédras. Beginning with the administration of George H. Bush, and continuing under Clinton, up to 40,000 fleeing Haitians were denied asylum in the US based on their racist characterisation by US officials as “disease-ridden”. They were intercepted at sea, detained in prison camps, and mostly deported back into the hands of the dictatorship in Haiti.
Guantanamo Bay has been used again since 9/11 to indefinitely detain without trial about 780 Muslim men to date, declared “enemy combatants” by the US government. Detainees have never been charged with a crime, but have been subjected to torture and other forms of systematic dehumanisation.
The most recent form of state violence and detention against targeted populations is manifesting in the growth of Central American migrant and refugee concentration camps along the US-Mexico border. While the most extreme and degraded conditions in the camps are the result of policies directly attributable to Trump, the overall growth of the migrant incarceration system has been a bipartisan project. The number of migrants held in detention has increased under every presidential administration for over the last 25 years, and during periods in which both Democratic and Republican majority-controlled congresses.
The deprivation of basic human rights and the abrogation of oversight and legal protections exists in all facets of migrant detention, whether it be Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracted, for-profit detention facilities, Border Patrol Stations and open-air camps, or migrant children’s “shelters”. Under Trump, the system has been pushed into crisis by criminalising refugees seeking to apply for asylum in the United States.
Criminalisation of refugees
More than 274,798 migrants and refugees have been put into detention centres so far in 2019. Between May and June 2019 alone, the Border Patrol apprehended 133,000 refugees, including 84,000 as families, 36,000 single adults, and 11,500 unaccompanied minors. They also turned away over 11,000 as “inadmissible,” also including families, adults, and children. In April, Trump began this latest crackdown by openly mocking Central American refugees, crassly stating at a press-conference that,“They are coming like it’s a picnic, like ‘let’s go to Disneyland.’”
International treaties and federal law require the government to evaluate a claim for asylum from anyone who enters the United States, regardless of method, through a port of entry or by crossing the border and being apprehended. Historically, more than 75 percent of asylum-seekers have typically passed the first screening as having a “credible fear,” and been allowed into the country pending a review.
The Trump administration has changed the rules to the asylum process by refusing to release any asylum-seekers into the country, and instead using mandatory and indefinite detention and deliberate forms of cruelty to punish people who try. While an estimated 30,000 “non-criminal family units” have been released from detention since the beginning of the year, Trump and right-wing congressional Republicans have stated their intention to increase the length of detention for families and children. Most recently, The Trump Administration removed a legal provision that allows some refugees to post bail after 7 days in detention. Ultimately, the Trump administration is inching towards the goal of attaining legal authority for indefinite detention, much like what exists at Guantanamo Bay.
Furthermore, the Department of Homeland Security has slowed the asylum request process at the southern border, forcing thousands to languish in Mexico, living in makeshift, open-air camps or on the streets for months at a time.
These were the conditions facing Oscar Alberto Martínez, Tania Avalos, and their 2-year-old daughter, Angie Valeria, a family who left El Salvador to find refuge in the US. After two months of living in unbearable conditions, the family made a desperate attempt to cross the Rio Grande river to get into Texas. Oscar Alberto and Angie Valeria were swept away by the current and drowned.
A nationwide system of concentration camps
Migration rates have not increased to a higher point than in the past, rather criminalisation and indefinite detention have led to a surge in migrant incarceration within existing capacity, resulting in the rapid degradation of conditions. This rapid expansion of detention has not included additional funding to facilitate the additional incarceration of hundreds of thousands of people or any increase in funding for the legal bureaucratic process of administering asylum cases. All facets of detention capacity are swelling, which along with the erosion of rights, protections, and oversight, has turned these institutions into centres of neglect, abuse, and violence in order to dehumanise the people.
Much of the recent attention of migrant abuse has focused on Border Patrol stations and encampments. These include makeshift facilities that house families, adults, or children only. The Border Patrol is holding more than 30,000 people for weeks and months at a time, pushing their existing facilities far over capacity. These stations are designed to hold adults for 1-2 days, and lack in basic necessities like showers, adequate toilets and clean drinking water, beds, and laundry facilities.
The NYT recently profiled a Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas:
A chaotic scene of sickness and filth is unfolding in an overcrowded border station in Clint, Tex., where hundreds of young people who have recently crossed the border are being held, according to lawyers who visited the facility this week. Some of the children have been there for nearly a month.
Children as young as 7 and 8, many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears, are caring for infants they’ve just met, the lawyers said. Toddlers without diapers are relieving themselves in their pants. Teenage mothers are wearing clothes stained with breast milk.
Most of the young detainees have not been able to shower or wash their clothes since they arrived at the facility… They have no access to toothbrushes, toothpaste or soap.
In other cases, people are housed in open-air makeshift camps that can get extremely hot in the day and extremely cold in the evening, an example is a notorious camp created near the international bridge in El Paso, Texas. According to Texas Monthly Magazine:
CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] previously detained people under the bridge in March and early April but moved the detainees to enclosed conditions after a public outcry over reports of children and pregnant women sleeping on gravel and being bombarded with pigeon droppings.
Later, it still functioned under squalid conditions after women and children were moved to a separate facility:
…one hundred to 150 men behind a chain-link fence, huddled beneath makeshift shelters made from mylar blankets and whatever other scraps they could find to shield themselves from the heat of the sun. “I was able to speak with detainees and take photos of them with their permission,” [an eyewitness] said in an email. “They told me they’ve been incarcerated outside for a month, that they haven’t washed or been able to change the clothes they were detained in the entire time, and that they’re being poorly fed and treated in general.
Under federal law and court rulings, families and unaccompanied children who seek asylum may not be detained for longer than 20 days, but the Department of Homeland Security is ignoring legal requirements, keeping children and families incarcerated for up to a month at a time in camps. It is under these conditions that at least six children, Jakelin Caal Maquín, Felipe Gómez Alonzo, Juan de León Gutiérrez, Carlos Hernández Vásquez, Wilmer Josué Ramírez Vásquez, and sixth unnamed child have died inside the facilities.
Border Patrol agents have repeatedly demonstrated their contempt for the plight of migrants and refugees at the border. Agents were recorded laughing and joking as children were crying after being separated from their parents. It was recently revealed that half of the entire force (about 9500 agents) participated in a secret Facebook group that joked about the deaths of migrants, referred to them as “subhuman”, and made violent and misogynistic threats against Latina legislators.
…agents of the Border Patrol (a component agency of CBP) are known for regularly overstepping the boundaries of their authority by using excessive force, detaining people under inhumane conditions, and using coercion and misinformation to remove people from the United States. Not only do alleged abuses occur with regularity, but they rarely result in any serious disciplinary action… 95.9 percent of the 1,255 cases in which an outcome was reported resulted in “no action” against the officer or agent accused of misconduct.
Those unaccompanied children that make it into the US under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health and Human Services, estimated to be at about 60,000, also face poor and abusive conditions in “child shelters.”
Child shelters offer no shelter at all
Existing immigration policy asserts that unaccompanied children have to be moved out of these camps in put into shelters within 20 days. These shelters are managed by the Health and Human Services Department (HHS), which works with ICE to contract for-profit and dubious “non-profit” services.
In reality, the spike in unaccompanied child refugees has given rise to a shelter “industry,” of which is “Southwest Key Programs” (formerly Southwest Key Industries) has emerged as the largest player and beneficiary. This company began as a conglomerate of for-profit businesses, but grew massively by landing federal government contracts to run a “non-profit” shelter operation.
After it received lucrative contracts from the Obama Administration during the first phase of migrant family incarceration, Southwest Key then reinvested in these operations as detention became a growing and profitable enterprise. What began under Obama, has massively expanded under Trump. Southwest Key now operates across several states including all of the border states, has pulled in over $1.7 billion in federal contracts in the last decade (over $600 million under Trump) for housing up to 14,000 child refugees at 100 sites.
This “non-profit” functions as a money-making operation for its top executives and industry partners. The CEO of the non-profit, Juan Sánchez, earned a salary of $1.5 million before retiring abruptly while under federal investigation. Southwest Key paid seven other people more than the legal federal salary cap of $187,000 for “non-profit” operators, including the chief financial officer Melody Chung, who was paid $1 million, and his wife Jennifer Sánchez who earned $500,000 as a vice president.
Furthermore, it uses money from government contracts to make sizeable profits for crony investors. The non-profit has lent tens of millions of dollars to real estate developers and investors with links to the Southwest Key, who then purchase properties to establish more shelters. The non-profit then “rents” the shelters from those same developers and investors. According to a New York Times investigation:
Over the past five years, a group based out of Mesa, Ariz., has earned more than $28 million in rent for properties that cost roughly $16 million. Others who benefited included a former New Mexico state cabinet secretary, a former adviser to a Mexican presidential candidate and two brothers who ran gas stations in Matamoros, Mexico.
These “child shelters” are also pushed to and beyond capacity, are understaffed, and have virtually no government oversight. Public investigations have shown instances of violence and abuse, sexual assault and molestation of children across multiple sites. Several shelters have been shut down as a result. Instead of investing in better conditions for the children, the managers have created a cash cow for connected investors, and factories of abuse and sexual exploitation for the children.
In government administered child camps, the Trump Administration has recently applied measures of cruelty to directly punish the children. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is the arm of the HHS and is charged with caring for an estimated 40,000 unaccompanied migrant children in government custody, recently scaled back or cancelled activities at the shelters. These measure included cuts in education programs, legal services, and funding for recreation.
Prisoners in ICE detention suffer in those centres as well.
ICE Detention – centres of profit and abuse
The complex of migrant incarceration is ICE is currently housing 53,000 people in detention facilities. Over 70% of the over 600 detention centres are privatised with little operational federal oversight, and with a sordid history of corruption. This has been abetted by the close relationship between high-ranking government officials and detention companies. A review by advocacy groups of five years of ICE inspections of detention centres between 2007 and 2012 found that ICE failed to properly inspect facilities under its jurisdiction and shrouded their operational methods in secrecy. According to the New York Times:
Over the past decade, dozens of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and contract guards responsible for the detention and removal of undocumented immigrants have been arrested and charged with beating people, smuggling drugs into detention centres, having sex with detainees, and accepting bribes to delay or stop deportations, agency documents and court records show.
Under these conditions, at least 196 people have died while in ICE custody since 2003, many under suspicious circumstances.
Furthermore, between January 2010 and July 2016 (i.e. during the Obama years), the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (an oversight agency within DHS) received over 33,000 complaints of sexual assault or physical abuse against children, women, men and LGBTQ people in detention by DHS agents, mostly from ICE. The inspector general, the office in charge of looking into complaints, investigated less than 1 percent of these cases.
ICE detention centres have also become forced labour sites. Kevin Landy, a former ICE official in the Obama administration, “contractors save a lot of money by using detainee labour because they’re performing work that would otherwise have to be performed by paid employees.” That work includes cooking and cleaning for as little as a dollar a day, or even for nothing in some cases.
GEO Group, the largest immigrant detention centre contractor in the nation, earned over $2.26 billion in revenue in 2017 from housing over 600,000 detainees in detention centres and prisons. The company revealed in its financial report that 64 percent of revenue came from detention and correctional facilities operations, and 22 percent from providing privatised health and educational services to detainees within their facilities. ICE is GEO group’s largest customer.
In the run-up to the 2016 election, GEO Group donated $475,000 to a Trump-supporting Super PAC and for Trump’s inauguration festivities in early 2018. CoreCivic, the other major private prison contractor in the U.S., gave $250,000 to support Trump’s campaign and inauguration. Since Trump’s election, GEO Group’s stock price has gone up 63 percent, and CoreCivic’s has risen 81 percent. They are seeing their investment pay off.
The interconnections between incarceration and profit-making have led to its growth as an industry in the US over the last few decades, which may also explain the lack of substantial opposition coming from the Democratic Party.
Absence of political opposition at the top
The crisis is fuelled by the absence of substantial opposition at the top of US politics. Neither the national leadership of the Democratic Party, nor the leading presidential candidates have called for the immediate closure of the camps or that all asylum-seekers to be transferred into the country with refugee status. Only one congressional representative, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, has gone public to condemn the concentration camps, recently making a high-profile fact-finding visit to three sites at the border.
Leading Democrats have instead focused on aspects of Trump’s recent policy changes regarding asylum status and the past practice of family separation. Their approach amounts to criticism of the excesses created by his policies, but not criticism of the detention system or the criminalisation of migrants as a whole. Presidential contenders have focused their rhetoric on the centrality of winning the election of 2020, after which they have made only vague promises to change policy once in office.
Recently, Democrats divided in the Democratic Party-controlled House of Representatives, allowing for enough votes to pass a Republican bill that hands Trump $4.6 billion to expand the concentration camp system. The spending bill is supposed to provide some money to improve “services” within the camps and shelters, but there are no requirements, guarantees, or checks written into the language of the bill. This means the Trump Administration has the final say on how to spend the money. As one dissenting congressperson declared, “This bill will fund a dysfunctional system…There are no standards that will force them to comply and be accountable to a basic level of humanitarian treatment and humanitarian needs.”
Upon investigation, the bill is not designed to provide aid for the migrants even with oversight. Rather it is an allocation to expand the detention system by giving the U.S. military a larger role in immigration enforcement. Among other provisions, the bill gives $145 million to the Department of Defence “to fund military expenses along the border, including facility maintenance, medical assistance and surveillance and enforcement operations.” It also increases pay for ICE and CBP agents, granting a $110 million pay raise in overtime funding as a reward for their service in rounding up and policing refugees in the concentration camps.
Opposition growing from below
For Trump, further repression and dehumanisation of migrants is the objective. The criminalisation of non-citizens has become a strategy that has benefited the capitalist system for the last three decades and under both parties. The maintenance of a population of people without the basic human and democratic rights embedded in citizenship has allowed for their increased exploitation of immigrants through the leveraging down of wages and as a bulwark against unionisation. Furthermore, the detention, surveillance, transport, and policing of immigrants are profitable growth industries. For Trump, the centring of racism, bigotry, and xenophobia in his presidency have also allowed him to cultivate a political base within society. He rallies this base to mobilise against his opposition on all fronts, allowing him to impose reactionary divides within society that mask the astronomical inequality between the rich and the rest of the population. Due to the complicity of the Democratic Party in building up the apparatus of migrant criminalisation, their “opposition” becomes inherently muddled, half-hearted, weak-kneed, and then splintered.
That is why an opposition movement is emerging from below, from working people. In the beginning of the year, Trump shut down the federal government for over a month to strong-arm Democratic Party budgetary support for expanding the border wall. The impasse ended when Sara Nelson, the International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines, threatened to call for and lead a general strike. Trump folded.
More recently, over 500 workers at the headquarters of the online furniture company, Wayfair, organised a one-day strike to oppose their employer’s contract with to furnish a detention centre for migrant youth in Carillo Springs, Texas. The strike was successfully organised in 24 hours and received broad public support, even without them being part of a union.
More recently, there has been a surging wave of protest and civil disobedience coming from activists and rights groups. Japanese-American survivors of the World War II concentration camps took direct action at Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma, a site where they had been detained and that is now being potentially re-activated for Central American refugees. Hundreds of Jewish protesters and allies with Never Again Action and #JewsAgainstICE have been leading militant and inspiring civil disobedience actions across the country at ICE detention centres over the last week. National coalitions such as the Coalition the Close the Concentration Camps, No More Concentration Camps, Close the Camps, and Lights for Liberty are supporting national days of action, including one called for July 12th.
It will take mass organising and mobilisations, persistent campaigns over time, and the need to push the whole political establishment from below to close all of the concentration camps.