Over the past few weeks, the media has been saturated with debate over Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term “concentration camps” to describe internment facilities for asylum seekers along the southern border. While critics have said the terminology is insulting to Jews and our forbearers who were murdered in the Holocaust, others (like myself) have insisted that “concentration camp” — first brought into widespread usage to describe the horrific internment of South Africans by the British during the Boer Wars — is a terrifyingly apt description of the abuses being committed on the border.
This week, the usage of “concentration camp” has been shown truer than ever, with the Department of Homeland Security watchdog sharing photos of inhumane overcrowding, described by one senior manager as “a ticking time bomb.” And a delegation of Congressional representatives — including Ocasio-Cortez — to the border reported the rampant physical and psychological abuse of detainees, including orders from guards to drink toilet water.
Yet even given this wanton, dehumanizing abuse, the Trump administration still insists that the conditions in these concentration camps are only a consequence of funding shortfalls. Give us more cash, and we’ll get some more mattresses, they say.
But in the past few days, what little credibility that narrative had has evaporated in the midst of a bombshell report from ProPublica on a far-right Facebook group of current and former agents of Customs and Border Protection (CBP, the agency which runs the camps).
The details of the group are sickening: called “I’m 10-15” — Border Patrol code for “aliens in custody” — members have joked about the death of an immigrant in CBP custody, discussed throwing burritos at Latino members of Congress visiting the camps, and even shared vulgar images of Ocasio-Cortez engaging in sexual acts with a detained migrant and President Trump.
This is no fringe group — it boasts roughly 9,500 members (CBP’s total force is about twenty-thousand agents), and, as Politico reports, has been known to Border Patrol leadership for three years. And this isn’t just harmless talk: during the House Democrat trip to the border, CBP agents displayed open hostility against the elected representatives, including taking their phones and cameras.
In response, Ocasio-Cortez called CBP “a rogue agency.”
I’ll go one step further: CBP is the American SS.
This is not a comparison I make lightly. The SS, of course, was the Nazi Party’s elite paramilitary, made up of ideological diehards who oversaw and carried out some of the regime’s worst crimes. In particular, it included the overseers of concentration and death camps, the SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV) — literally, the “Death’s Head Units.” But, as a Jew whose family was murdered in the Holocaust, I feel especially responsible for taking the historical lessons of that era and applying them to this urgent moment.
There’s a reason that the SS ran the Nazi camps: they were true believers. Since the first concentration camp, Dachau, was built in March 1933, it was only the ideologically pure Nazi paramilitary who were to be trusted with overseeing them. Given their crucial role in abusing and murdering racial enemies, LGBT people, “enemies of the Reich” (including Communists and socialists), and “asocials” (including pacifists and draft dodgers), these camps had to be run by those who deeply believed in dehumanizing of their victims.
“Dehumanizing” may be the best word to describe the words and actions of CBP officers. At every level — from the senior staff that send immigrants to concentration camps instead of open shelters to the officers who joke about people dying in their custody to the guards who intentionally torment detainees — CBP is an agency whose very essence is about the dehumanization of immigrants.
And this isn’t new: CBP agent violence has long been pervasive. As Daniel Denvir recounted recently:
Complaints of abuse were so rampant in 1980 that two Hispanic agents were sent undercover, dressed as Mexican workers, to check out the San Clemente checkpoint on I-5. The result: the agents allegedly beat their undercover colleagues with a chair and flashlight — and were charged with beating others including a fifteen-year-old citizen.
Accounts like this have been corroborated by both former and current Border Patrol officers who have assailed a pervasive culture of cruelty. As one former CBP agent, Jenn Budd, put it, “cruelty is the point . . . This is taught in the academy and reinforced by management.” When Budd tried to report abusive behavior to CBP, she got run over by an agent in the parking lot.
Of course, the CBP is not exterminating people by the millions. And the United States is not a fascist state. But my point is to emphasize that after decades of nurturing a culture of violent, racist abuse, CBP cannot be seen as just another working-class job. Like the SS, we must see CBP not as a place where good people do bad things (as many historians have suggested much of the Nazi Wehrmacht was), but where bad people do bad things. It is rotten to its very core.
In reading accounts of Border Patrol, one of the most chilling came in from Daniel Denvir:
What seems different now is there were also, as recently as ’94, frequent expressions of ambivalence. Agents who said things like: “A lot of times I’ve sat down and wondered, am I doing the right thing? . . . I think, jeez, these are just poor people trying to feed their families.” If my sense of this is right — that Border Patrol agents have become yet more vicious and racist in recent years — that’s thanks to decades of politicians waging a bipartisan war that demonizes undocumented migrants as an economic, criminal, terrorist, and existential threat.
The SS was prized by Hitler for training its members to be totally unambivalent about the atrocities they committed. With Border Patrol now becoming the same, and using that right-wing ideological commitment to oversee dehmanizing and murderous concentration camps, the Left must be unequivocal in calling the agency what it is: the American SS.