Skip to main content

Yes, Trump's Detention Centers Are Concentration Camps

These are concentration camps, and denying as much merely prepares the way for worse atrocities to come.
Protesters chained together at the wrist block traffic from passing on the road to the Otay Mesa Detention Center during a demonstration against U.S. immigration policy that separates children from parents, in San Diego, California, on June 23rd, 2018.

Protesters chained together at the wrist block traffic on the road to the Otay Mesa Detention Center during a demonstration against U.S. immigration policy that separates children from parents, in San Diego, California, on June 23rd, 2018.

Every time I drive from my home to the airport, I pass the ruins of a concentration camp. I live in the Twin Cities, in Minnesota, where the Minneapolis−Saint Paul International Airport sits next to Fort Snelling. In the 1860s, United States soldiers imprisoned over 1,600 Dakota people in Fort Snelling, keeping them in horrible conditions as part of what the Minnesota Historical Society now acknowledges was a set of "genocidal policies pursued against Indigenous people throughout the U.S. ... a campaign calculated to make them stop being Dakota." Between 130 and 300 people died of cold and disease before the survivors were eventually forcibly expelled from the region, exiled from their lands, and driven to reservations further west.

Fort Snelling, built on the beautiful spot where the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers flow together, a place the Dakota called Bdote, is the concentration camp next door.

Is it fair to use the phrase "concentration camp" to describe the Trump administration's string of prison camps, detention facilities, and other installations meant to incarcerate immigrants in highly concentrated numbers? That question has been a subject of national debate since at least the summer of 2018. Thanks to President Donald Trump's new plan this week to expand the prison camp system, including the repurposing of a former Japanese internment site, the debate over semantics has arisen once more.

Addressing constituents on Instagram Live on Monday night, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did not mince words: "The U.S. is running concentration camps on our Southern border, and that is exactly what they are: They are concentration camps."

Conservatives predictably pushed back against this language, alleged that Ocasio-Cortez was appropriating the history of the Holocaust, and claimed therefore that her word choice was offensive to Jewish people. One of Ocasio-Cortez's most vocal detractors was Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming.

Right-wing gentiles like Cheney are not credible advocates for Jewish Americans; their invocation of the Holocaust is a bad-faith ploy to distract Americans from the horrors of the current camps. But it’s a bad-faith attack that can easily find fertile ground in the American imagination because of a fundamental, and apparently widespread, misconception that the phrase "concentration camps" somehow belongs solely to the history of the Holocaust. It's true that the Nazi regime built a particularly substantial network of prison camps and then slowly morphed them into factories for genocide in ways that were, and remain, unique. But concentration camps are disturbingly normal in this modern era. They have a global history that long predates the specific horrors of Nazi Germany. They also have a national history in the U.S. that is indelibly bound up in the formation and modern history of this nation.

The horrors of Trump's prison camps have been clear since at least 2018, when The New Yorker published images of the prison for children in Tornillo, Texas. Searing reporting from ProPublica included recordings of children screaming and an exposé of secret detention facilities. This past fall, the New York Times broke the news that the Trump administration was secretly deporting immigrant children to the Tornillo camp. At least 24 immigrants have died in Trump camps. Journalist Jonathan Katz catalogued the intentional savagery at these border camps, including torture through sleep deprivation, freezing-cold conditions, children stuck in vans for over 37 hours, detainees confined to dog kennels, starvation, and a lack of basic medicine.

Even if these camps were less hellish, Katz writes, there is still no such thing as a good concentration camp. Katz reminds us that international journalists deemed Dachau a nicely run facility in 1933. We all know how that escalated.

These conditions have led experts in the history of concentration camps to defend the use of that label in the current American context. Historian Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, defines concentration camps as facilities used for the "detention of civilians without trial based on group identity." She traces the emergence of such camps to those erected by imperial Spain during the Cuban rebellion of 1896, by the U.S. not long after in the Philippines, and by the British in South Africa during the Boer War and beyond. These were not death camps per se, but vast numbers of people died in each by design, as governments tried to crush, expel, and isolate specific populations.

The same thing seems to be happening along the American Southern border. Pitzer writes that, in the face of a president openly expressing "animosity toward those interned [and under circumstances] in which a government detains people and harms them by separating children from their parents or deliberately putting them in danger," we need to acknowledge the border camps as the latest entry in this terrible history. These are concentration camps, and denying as much merely prepares the way for worse atrocities to come.

There's a specifically North American story here as well. Concentration camps were built whenever and wherever American soldiers concentrated and interned Native peoples before expelling them from their lands. The goal of these sites, as historian John Legg writes, using the example of Fort Snelling, was "to separate Dakota from white society following the U.S.–Dakota War," and to transform Dakota land into "a white agricultural landscape." These camps may have lacked the ovens of Auschwitz, but they were nonetheless an intentional tool of destruction. During the 20th century, Germans were interned during World War I in North Carolina and Georgia. Sites of Japanese internment during World War II—as well as camps that held German, Italian, and Native Alaskan populations—stretch from California to New England. Historian Kevin Kruse notes that the organizers of Japanese internment explicitly called their facilities "concentration camps."

Conservatives would do well to remember, and acknowledge, that concentration camps are a standard feature of American history. If you live in North America, there's almost certainly the site of a former camp not far from where you're sitting as you read this essay. If you're near the Southern border, alas, there's also probably a camp operating somewhere close to you right now. The question isn't whether it's appropriate to characterize the Trump prison centers as "concentration camps," but whether concentration camps will be as much a part of the future of the U.S. as they were part of our past.


Pacific Standard's Ideas section is your destination for idea-driven features, voracious culture coverage, sharp opinion, and enlightening conversation. Help us shape our ongoing coverage by responding to a short reader survey.