In mid-July I visited Auschwitz, returning in the evening to Krakow where I took notice of an announcement: the Trump Administration was adopting a new policy that would essentially end asylum in the United States. The rule denies asylum to any person who has traveled through another country before reaching the U.S. and has not applied for asylum in the transit country. A lower court enjoined the rule pending a determination of its legality but the Supreme Court subsequently lifted the lower court’s order. The policy is now in effect at the southwest border.
This odd combination of events sparked a number of thoughts which I offer now after further reflection. I will not enter into the discussion of whether the detention facilities to which children have been confined in the U.S. are or are not similar to concentration camps; nor am I arguing that that the policies of the Trump regime will end with death camps. But at the most general level there are parallels or congruences that I find deeply troubling.
FIRST: Deliberate cruelty
Trump has made clear that inflicting harm is a means that the government will adopt in order to deter travel to the U.S. to assert an asylum claim. Child separation, detention, and “return to Mexico” policies can be read no other way. So too his statement that if children do not like what they face in the U.S. then they shouldn’t come. In Nazi Germany, this worked in the reverse way: harm was piled on top of harm to drive Jews and others out (before the goal became extermination). But the idea was the same: punishment to the body of a human being (without a criminal conviction or a declared war) is seen as a legitimate means for achieving governmental goals. It is not, and it cannot be, under any acceptable conception of human dignity.
SECOND: Denaturalizing others
As Hannah Arendt and others have noted, the denationalization of Jews and other minorities provided a basis for discrimination against them and ultimately their death. It was supported by (contradictory) racist tropes — Jews as Bolsheviks and global capitalists, leeches, subhumans and canny manipulators. Most important, Jews were loyal only to the Jewish people, not to the country in which they resided and of which they were citizens; they were the enemies of the Reich and of the “true” citizens of the Reich. Trump’s comments that members of “the Squad” should go back to where they came from provide a frightening echo. His comments about immigrants are reprehensible enough; but his tweets about the four members of Congress were attacks on U.S. citizens that singled them out based on race and national origin and called into question their loyalty to the country. He declares that they “hate” America apparently because they strongly disagree with Trump’s policies. His aim is to, in effect, deny or take away their citizenship — a goal he cannot achieve in law but he can perhaps achieve in the minds of his supporters.
THIRD: Heartless efficiency
What strikes one upon visiting Auschwitz is the purported rationality of the system put in place for mass murder. I mean this in the sense of cold-blooded efficiency: people will arrive, be separated according to camp and labor needs, stripped of their belongings and clothes, and those immediately selected to die will be murdered and incinerated efficiently. It was as bureaucratic as it was brutal. We have watched in the US the use of bureaucratic and legalistic language to explain child separation, the automatic denial of asylum, detention of families — as if the goal of preventing movement to the U.S. justifies the harm to humans that will necessarily follow from this “architecture of repulsion,” a term I borrow from David FitzGerald. Again let me be clear: I am not suggesting that the goal of deterring asylum claims can be equated with the goal of ridding Europe of Jews. What I am saying is that, like the bureaucrats who gathered at Wannsee to plan the Final Solution, U.S. policy makers adopt logical, efficient means that ignore and deny the humanity of those who are the objects of its regulation.
The caging of immigrants at the southwest border is justified in bureaucratic terms, with administration policy makers attempting to solve the problems of flow and throughput. Attorney General Sessions’ opinion in Matter of A.B. provides a hyper-technical, detached discussion of asylum law, leading him to declare that virtually no person asserting asylum claims based on domestic abuse or gang violence will any longer be eligible for relief. The decision shows no concern for its likely result: that women and young men will be returned to violence and abuse. It occurred to me at Auschwitz that there were no human beings in the death camps — the prisoners had been stripped of their humanity and the guards had shed theirs.
I fear the same is happening at the southwest border. Migrants have been dehumanized by Trump’s rhetoric and bureaucratic practice, and immigration officials are just following orders. (And consider the Orwellian terminology “Migrant Protection Protocols” under which asylum applicants are returned to Mexico to await filing of their cases. It is about as cynical a name as can be imagined, but my guess is that DHS would be happy to provide reasons to defend it.)
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Virtually every immigration policy that the Trump Administration has announced has been challenged in court. Often the government has had plausible legal defenses that government lawyers have pressed with appropriate assiduousness, even if they are not, in the end, accepted by the courts. But zealous representation has it limits as applied to government lawyers, either because the legal arguments suggested by higher ups are wrong or are pretexts (such as the justifications offered for the new safe third country rule); or because the policies, even if some colorable argument could be made in their favor, are morally unacceptable.
At some point, I think, it becomes the duty of the government’s immigration lawyers to just say no.
Alex Aleinikoff is the Director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at the New School.