No, Maintaining U.S. Borders Is Not The Same As Ethnic Cleansing

No, Maintaining U.S. Borders Is Not The Same As Ethnic Cleansing

Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has doubled down on her claim that the United States is running concentration camps on the U.S. border with Mexico.

“The US ran concentration camps before, when we rounded up Japanese people during WWII. It is such a shameful history that we largely ignore it,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Wednesday morning. “These camps occur throughout history. Many refuse to learn from that shame, but here we are today. We have an obligation to end them.”

Of course, the claim that conditions at U.S. border facilities are anything like Nazi concentration camps or Japanese American internment camps is absurd. Detainees are not subjected to forced labor, malnutrition, or mass executions. They also chose to enter these facilities by willingly coming to the United States and typically turning themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol, while obviously concentration camp inmates were forced to be there.

And while Japanese Americans and victims of the Third Reich had no option to leave, the 48,000 detainees in U.S. border facilities may opt for “voluntary departure” and return to their country of origin at any time. But the more shameful flaw in Ocasio-Cortez’ claim is not the contrast in conditions, it’s the difference in why inmates are being detained.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the involuntary removal and detention of nearly 122,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast of the United States. In a paranoid, racist effort to thwart “espionage and sabotage,” Japanese Americans were forced by the U.S. Army from their homes and livelihoods, and confined in internment camps.

No charges were made against the inmates, nor were they allowed to appeal their incarceration. Nearly 60 percent of the detainees were American citizens. Japanese internment was fueled by racism and fear, and remains one of the darkest chapters of American history.

The first Nazi concentration camp was established at Dachau in March 1933, three months after Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor. The Third Reich used concentration camps to relentlessly suppress any opposition, detaining communists and anyone perceived to be an “enemy of the Reich.”

Meanwhile, the Nuremburg Laws isolated German Jews, stripped them of citizenship and rights, and codified unspeakable discrimination. In January 1942, Nazi officials gathered in Berlin to hold a “Conference on the Final Solution of the Jewish Problem.” There, they resolved in no uncertain terms to “to cleanse German living space of Jews.” By the end of World War II, 17 million people had been systematically murdered—including Jews, Soviets, Poles, and LGBTQ people—in the most hideous attempt at racial cleansing in history.

Japanese Americans and victims of the Third Reich were detained and persecuted by their own governments because of who they were, not detained by a foreign government because they failed to follow that government’s just and impartial laws. If detainees in centers on our Mexican border were sent there for the same reasons as victims in Japanese internment or Nazi concentration camps, then yes, it would truly be horrifying that such a thing was happening in the land of the free. But the two situations are nothing alike.

Japanese American internment was not just bad because conditions within the camps were dreadful. It was wrong because it singled out a group of Americans and held them in contempt. The Nazi Holocaust was not just bad because of the atrocities committed in concentration and death camps. It is horrifying because whole populations were arbitrarily chosen for death.

Ocasio-Cortez’ claim equivocates law enforcement with racist incarceration and ethnic cleansing, delegitimizing the suffering of actual concentration camp victims. That’s the opposite of vowing “Never Again.”

Vivian Jones is communications director at The Philos Project in New York City.
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