Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez invited controversy this week when she referred to the detention of immigrants detained at the border as being put in “concentration camps.”
“A presidency that creates concentration camps is fascist, and it’s very difficult to say that, because it is very difficult to accept the fact that that is how bad things have gotten, but that is how bad things have gotten,” she said.
That’s a loaded term and immediately conjures images of Nazi death camps. The reaction to Ocasio-Cortez’s posts using it on social media was swift, particularly among Republicans like Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who accused the New York freshman lawmaker of ignoring history and disrespecting Jews who died during the Holocaust.
Republicans criticizing Ocasio-Cortez are probably more than happy to deflect from the anti-Semitism often stoked by President Donald Trump and feed the narrative that a new crop of Democrats, skeptical of the US relationship to Israel, is hostile to Jews.
Others, mostly Democrats, defended Ocasio-Cortez for being technically accurate and for drawing attention to conditions in today’s migrant camps. The Department of Homeland Security Inspector General has warned of dangerous overcrowding an unsanitary conditions of processing facilities for migrants at the border. The military has been asked to construct tented camps for thousands of migrants at military bases surrounded by chain link fence and topped by barbed wire.
The facilities are being used to house migrant children who arrive at the border unaccompanied by parents or guardians and the average length of stay while HHS searches for a sponsor for them in the country is 48 days.
At some point, it comes down to Ocasio-Cortez’s intent. To the extent she specifically intended the term to draw a parallel between Nazi death camps and camps for detaining undocumented immigrants at the border, she’s guilty of drawing an inaccurate and offensive moral equivalence.
To the extent that she used the term to draw new attention to conditions at camps along the border, she’s on safer ground.
It seems like there is some of both at play.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of concentration camp (which was their top trending term Wednesday) is: a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard —used especially in reference to camps created by the Nazis in World War II for the internment and persecution of Jews and other prisoners.
That does not specifically say that a concentration camp must be a Nazi camp, but it does refer to Nazis.
On the other hand, the detention camps the US has created are for people seeking asylum in the US, which makes them refugees, so a camp for a large number of them meets this dictionary definition.
Encyclopedia Britannica says that the people held in a concentration camp are noncombatants held without trial, often to keep them from becoming guerrillas, as with the Japanese Americans during World War II. There were no such camps for German Americans. But they argue concentration camps should be distinguished from refugee camps.
What to call the internment of a type of people by the US government without trial has been an open debate for some time.
In 2012, NPR wrote a thoughtful review of whether internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II were technically concentration camps after a host referred to them that way and a listener complained.
They noted Franklin D. Roosevelt used the term “concentration camp” with regard to Japanese camps. And they noted that historians tend to use that term for camps other than Nazi death camps.
What likely spurred Ocasio-Cortez to use the term is the news that the US government will house undocumented immigrants at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, a massive Army base that was also the site of a former internment camp for Japanese Americans. Critics of the mass incarceration of immigrants have long compared the situation to Japanese internment, but this development drives the point home. This base will specifically be used for unaccompanied migrant children and was also used briefly during the Obama administration. The facilities are being activated by the Health and Human Services Department, which cares for the children.
Ocasio-Cortez denied comparing the US government to the Nazis and said on Twitter that “Concentration camps are considered by experts as ‘the mass detention of civilians without trial.’”
Comparing the detention of immigrants today to the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II is nothing new – Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, did it last year.
In deciding the famous 1944 Korematsu v. United States, the case debating the constitutionality of ordering Japanese Americans into camps, the Supreme Court was split on what to call the facilities.
In the majority opinion, which upheld the government’s ability to put people in camps, the justices rejected the term “concentration camp,” writing, “and we deem it unjustifiable to call them concentration camps, with all the ugly connotations that term implies.”
Dissenting, however, was Justice Owen Roberts, who wrote the government’s term “War Relocation Centers” was “a euphemism for concentration camps.”
Speaking of euphemisms, the term the government is using for Fort Sill is “temporary emergency influx shelter.”
The Korematsu decision lasted more than 70 years in part because it had not been challenged, but the Supreme Court in 2018 overturned it. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, dissenting with the conservative majority’s decision to uphold Trump’s partial travel ban on mostly Muslim countries, drew a parallel with the Japanese internment camps, which in turn drew the ire of Chief Justice John Roberts, who said there was no comparison, but also made clear Korematsu was incorrectly decided.
CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this report.