The firestorm of criticism of Alexandria Ocasio-Córtez for referring to “concentration camps” on our southern border underscores the power of language over our perception of reality: how some terms have become like high-beam headlights that blind and render us momentarily incapable of responding to anything else … during which time a vehicle can crash and burn.
The Nazi holocaust, the ultimate atrocity of modern history, has been seared into our consciousness, as it should be – we must never forget and never allow it to happen again in any shape or form. But Martin Niemöller’s haunting verse is an antidote to the conditioned reflex to the use of the term "concentration camp" in a broader context as diminishing the Holocaust and by inference, anti-Semitic. Niemoller reminds us that not only were 6 million Jews were tortured, starved and exterminated, but also approximately 5 million "Others" – socialists, trade unionists ... and gypsies, homosexuals, and Slavs:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out
—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out
— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out
—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me
—and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Today, Japanese Americans speak out because so very few spoke out in the 1940s for us, for our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents when the U.S. government declared all persons of Japanese ancestry a threat to our country, and sent the Army to put 125,000 people, many of whom were children, into concentration camps.
Children at Tule Lake Concentration Camp in California during World War II.
Yes, they were concentration camps. President Franklin Roosevelt called them that because that is exactly what they were: holding areas into which an entire population was concentrated, without charges or trials, simply because they were deemed undesirable. The camps were officially named “Relocation Centers” but that did not change the reality that the government did more than “relocate” people in need of “evacuation.” Those terms were euphemisms for the forced removal and imprisonment of a vulnerable, disfavored minority group.
AOC, Japanese Americans, and scholars such as journalist Andrea Pitzer and historian Waitman Beorn do not posit an equivalency between American concentration camps and Nazi death camps, which did more than “concentrate” 11 million people into camps. The death camps methodically stripped men, women and children of their humanity and exterminated them.
Therefore, the term "concentration camp," as applied to the Nazi holocaust, is in fact a euphemism, just as is the term "relocation camp" as applied to the Japanese American camps – a partial truth that deflects and conceals the whole truth, the ugly part of the truth that shocks our sensibilities, as Americans and as human beings.
The ugly part of the truth of our country’s current immigration policy is that families and children are not only detained, but under inhumane conditions and for political reasons. They are imprisoned in crowded, unsanitary spaces not for any crime but because they are falsely identified as a threat to making America great again. In fact, our treatment of them belies that slogan - does a great country imprison asylum-seeking families in concentration camps?
Immigrant families imprisoned under a bridge in El Paso, June 11, 2019.
The majority of imprisoned immigrants are not “illegal” but refugees desperately seeking asylum, which is entirely legal under international and domestic law. These unfortunate families have been put into concentration camps because the government has declared them to be enemies, as Japanese Americans were declared enemies during World War II.
The Japanese American community has wrestled for years with terminology used to describe, analyze, and understand, emotionally as well as intellectually, our history. We are reclaiming non-euphemistic language to accurately talk about our collective experience, which we are determined to prevent from happening again. “Never Again” is NOW.
This is not a partisan issue – immigrant concentration camps were created by Democratic president Bill Clinton and Republican president George W. Bush, and greatly expanded by Democratic president Barack Obama. But the Trump administration has taken the policy of detaining immigrants to an extreme: to tear sobbing children from their parents and to put them into cages is too much, for conservatives as well as liberals.
It’s time to turn away from the blinding headlights of “America First,” and to come to a common understanding and solution to the humanitarian crisis that is testing our moral character as individuals and as a country.
Can we be inclusive instead of exclusive, not only with Others but also among ourselves? Or will we crash and burn because hyper-partisanship casts the issue into an “us-v-them” scenario instead of seeing that we are all “us.” The fate of not only thousands of families fleeing violence but, in the final analysis, our entire planet depends on us.
On June 22, 2019, members of the Japanese American community, called Tsuru for Solidarity, protested at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, a site designated by the Trump administration for detention of 1400 immigrant children. One month later, on July 20, Tsuru returned and joined Latino and Native American and other civil rights groups to continue the protest. One week later, the Trump administration announced that Fort Sill would not be used to detain immigrant children.