Although I love to travel, I’ve never liked crossing borders. It makes me nervous, perhaps because, on one side of my family, I am the child of immigrants who were always fussing about their paperwork. Border guards, I learned at an early age, are anonymous functionaries who have outsized power to wreck your plans, or invade your privacy, for any reason they choose. Because of this, sometimes when a border guard asks me what I am coming into the country to do, I am jittery enough to forget completely. Is it a conference? Vacation? Giving a talk? Visiting a friend? Occasionally, they ask where I am staying and I always want to say: how the fuck should I know? I’ve never even been here before. I know where home is and that’s about it.
I am so attuned to the terror of these crossings that I find it even creepier when there aren’t any border checks, because I’m sure there is some greater power lurking somewhere. Once, before 9/11, we were visiting a friend in Geneva, Switzerland. We got off the plane, walked down a series of halls, and all of a sudden, we were on the street, without our passports having been stamped, or having gone through customs, or anything. I thought: oh my God, where is the nearest American Embassy?! But our friend, who met us outside the airport, just threw our suitcases in her car and said, “Don’t worry. They knew who you were before you got on the plane.” You see what I mean?
But of course, I have never been so unlucky to have needed to find refuge in another country because I am worried that I will be imprisoned, tortured, or killed. I have never had to flee because if I stayed where I was I would starve to death or be forced to become a drug mule, be persecuted for my politics, sexuality or religion, or see my children grow up in poverty and violence. But this is the situation that thousands of people find themselves in many parts of the world, not infrequently because the United States — because of our appetite for drugs, oil and dictators — has helped to create these problems. Because of their desire to translate their ability to work hard into safety and prosperity, immigrants and refugees try to come into the United States for freedom and opportunity.
The Trump administration is determined to stop them, or at least determined to show Trump voters that they are determined to stop them. They are also trying to blackmail Democrats into funding their asinine border wall which, in addition to being useless, is guaranteed to be a sinkhole of corruption, graft and pork barrel spending if it is funded. In the latest chapter, Donald Trump and the Trump Justice Department (not to be confused with a real Justice Department) has signed off on a policy of separating children from their migrant parents and is more or less holding those children hostage. The Los Angeles Times has a good summary here of what we know so far.
It’s a heartbreaking situation, and one that is not — I think — exactly breaking down on partisan lines, in part because centrists and many conservatives are horrified by the few images and sounds of traumatized children that are evading the Trump administration’s suppression of the news. All the Democrats are enraged; and a great many Republicans in the Senate are shifting uncomfortably in their chairs. Ted Cruz, for example, who is currently in a dead heat with Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, cannot figure out how to play this. Jeff Flake and Susan Collins have written a stern letter to Kirsten Nielsen, the secretary of Homeland Security. Evangelical Franklin Graham has announced that he finds the family separation policy “disgraceful,” although oddly, he doesn’t find Trump himself disgraceful. And the Queen of Feckless Cant, Ivanka Trump has, we are assured, spoken to the man universally known as “my father” about this, but won’t be making a public statement.
There are a great many things to be upset about here: that children are being traumatized for absolutely no reason that has anything to do with public safety or their own well-being; that they are being held in hastily erected, minimal standard facilities with little trained staff; that the Trump administration is trying to prevent press coverage, so that the American people know very little about what is going on; and that administration officials are simply lying about what they are doing. The rest of the globe is caught up in the joy of the World Cup and the United States is — doing what? Producing a panoramic display of what it looks like for a superpower to have no ethical or moral standards whatsoever.
Nothing enrages people who are defending this odious policy more than comparisons to the Holocaust, which have only been exacerbated by reports in Texas that children, who officials said were being taken for a bath, had been separated from their parents and taken to detention centers. You can hear how those children are doing here, courtesy of ProPublica.
But let’s get back to the Holocaust, shall we? Since the trip I am taking, and the borders I am crossing, are taking me into the heart of that history, over the last several weeks I read Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (2015), one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful accounts of the Nazi concentration camp system since Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). You might want to put this book, which clocks in at over 600 pages of text and another 200 pages of notes, in the category of “Claire Potter read it so I don’t have to,” but let me say — in addition to being meticulously researched and beautifully written, it makes two excellent meta-arguments about the practice of history. The first is that no historical event is ever unique, but no historical event is exactly like another in its details either, which means that its dynamics can re-emerge in different times and places.
Because of this, although the situation on the U.S.-Mexico border is not the Holocaust, we can, in fact, generalize from phenomena like the Nazi KL. So, without further ado, here are some insights that my recent immersion in the history of state policing has produced:
The Holocaust and the vast network of concentration camps, and satellite camps, that were spread across Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, are not the same. Killing Jews and Soviet POWs in a systematic way was one job that some camps did, but this job was done in different ways, murder being only one of them, with planned, systematic, extermination evolving somewhat late in the process. Wachsmann’s account of the KL system is particularly fascinating because he shows how it evolves as the needs of the Nazi regime develop, and as stakeholders within the Nazi state (specifically the SS, which ran the camps) developed different aspirations and offered their services differently to the regime. And what the SS cared most about, from its leadership all the way down to the guards, was profit. Those profits emerged from SS businesses staffed with slave labor, the resale of food and building materials intended to support the camps themselves, the renting of prisoners to private businesses, and the theft of goods stolen from prisoners.
How do we use this knowledge to think about what is happening at the U.S.-Mexico border? Journalists, in my view, need to not just report on the horror of these children’s incarceration and separation from their parents, they also need start digging around in public documents to see who is profiting from this episode, and what profiteering has been delayed by the inability to fund The Wall. Who has been contracted to set up, operate, and provision these children’s camps? Who aspires to profit from the contracts at the wall Trump wants to build at the border?
In addition, it is important to note that one purpose a few camps served was to hold important people as hostages, who could be released upon payment of a ransom. Late in the war, as the SS leadership was frantically trying to figure out how to not go down with the ship, these hostages were also imagined as bargaining chips that well-placed individuals imagined trading in exchange for not being prosecuted by the Western Allies.
Finally, what made it possible to incarcerate millions of Europeans, including Germans, in these camps, was identifying them as enemies of the nation as people without citizenship rights, who were a public menace, who were disease-carriers, and who were subhuman. This is the Trump administration’s primary rhetorical flourish, it infects their every utterance and deed, and we need to develop a counter-discourse of citizenship and human rights to vigorously oppose this.
Superficial facts do not tell the whole truth — but they leave clues that may lead to a deeper truth. The reports that parents are being told their children are being taken to the showers is absolutely the kind of dumb cluck thing the Trump administration does, in part because it is staffed by openly racist people. But here’s what we need to think about: when the KL developed special camps for labor and extermination, children were usually not separated from their mothers. Mothers and children, along with the sick and elderly, were usually sent to their death together, even when the mothers might have been usefully enslaved. Along the way, SS guards would tell them they were going to baths, hospitals, dinner — whatever — and until people were being shoved and pushed into the gas chambers they often had no idea what was going on. When prisoners did intuit that they were about to be murdered, they fought, screamed, ran away, and resisted in ways that made the job of killing them more difficult — and, for some SS, harder to stomach.
In other words, SS guards lied to prisoners to make them easier to control for as long as possible and sending mothers and children to their death together was one way to kill children more easily. Mothers would often take over the job of comforting their children, rather than fighting for their lives in a hopeless situation. But the lie also served the purpose of protecting the perpetrators of this violence from the consequences of their actions.
As Kirsten Nielson might point out herself, children are not being sent to their deaths. But the lie itself points to a deeper truth about this administration, which is that they tell outrageous falsehoods to control the capacity of decent thinking people to respond appropriately to the violence that is being perpetrated against immigrants. Lies, when told deliberately by agents of the state, have far greater consequences than your average falsehood, and in this case, U.S. Border Patrol and other federal officers are telling what they know are lies to make carrying out this ugly and immoral job easier. Again, there is a job for a journalist here: did they come up with these lies on their own, or did someone higher up instruct them to do this? This is an important question, because it means that there was an awareness within the Trump administration of how damaging this policy decision was to migrants and their children, and that they proceeded regardless of the consequences.
A second important question that someone needs to report on: are the boots on the ground people enforcing these policies suffering from trauma themselves?
People who participate in any form of incarceration and punishment may be following orders, but they are also choosing to participate. One of the insights of Wachsmann’s book is that the initial KL system, set up in the days following Hitler’s ascension in 1933, was hasty and slipshod. Sites in the KL system included boats, pubs, open fields, tents, actual prisons, and private homes. Furthermore, these early KLs served three purposes: they employed large numbers of right-wing thugs and war veterans, who had been working as street fighters and were more or less unemployable, and to whom Hitler had promised jobs; they disrupted left-wing and liberal networks that might have opposed Hitler in these early days; and they instilled terror.
All of these purposes are important positions from which to understand the creation of a false crisis around unauthorized immigration. First, Trump’s zero tolerance border policy will not stop people fleeing from terror and violence in their own countries (violence which is often U.S.-backed, I might add), but it does promise — not just to line the pockets of private contractors, but to employ large numbers of Americans to whom Trump has promised “good jobs.” I have reports from friends that some of these detained migrants are being held as far north as Oregon and should the practice of detaining and deporting non-citizens and legal residents continue, we are looking at millions of additional federal prisoners entering the pipeline as they await hearings and deportation. Unemployed people in coal country won’t get their coal mines back, but they might get detention camps.
Second, the rush to aim resources at this crisis on the part of regime opponents also diverts resources, and personnel, from the Trump administration’s other depredations, which — since Congress is more or less useless nowadays — are mostly being fought out in court. As Emily Bazelon said the other day on Slate‘s Political Gabfest, “The judges are doing their job.” But we only have so many judges and so many lawyers. In other words, one service the border crisis provides to the Trump administration is to leech resources from these other battles. But it also clogs the immigration courts and threatens to make them nonfunctional, opening the door to the administration taking “emergency measures” to resolve an incarceration overload that it has created.
State terror is often inflicted under cover of law. We need to acknowledge that these inhumane incarceration practices are principally a form of state terror, one that has been honed in modern incarceration and foster care systems that have existed in the United States for decades. One acknowledged outcome of incarcerating regime opponents in the early days of Nazi rule was to provide living examples of the regime’s power to target and destroy people at random. The hastily assembled KL swelled with prisoners in 1933, but the vast majority of them — Jews, Communists, priests — after having been brutally beaten and tortured, were released back into the community in less than a year. These traumatized citizens, many of whom were unable to speak about what had happened to them, became an effective enforcement mechanism to encourage docility and silence in others.
The incarceration of children is an act devised by a racist presidential administration that is seeking ways not just to deport thousands of people of color, many thousands of whom have been legally resident in the United States for decades, but to encourage as many people who are not native-born Americans to leave. As numerous historians have pointed out in recent days, separating children from their parents and communities has been integral to American chattel slavery, to federal policies of Native American removal, and to modern systems of foster care.
The current crisis is not, in reality about border security, but is intended, I think, as a lesson to all of us from a weak and chaotic administration that has been virtually unable to enact its agenda by conventional, legal means. We will do the unthinkable, they are telling us.
If Trump administration spokespeople were telling the truth, this is what they would say: if we would do this — what won’t we do? Think about that before you defy us again.
Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter.