Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) controversial comments likening U.S. immigrant detention centers at the southern border to “concentration camps” aren’t inaccurate, a concentration camp expert and author said Tuesday.
Andrea Pitzer, who literally wrote the book on the global history of concentration camps, defended the freshman lawmaker against Republican backlash during an appearance Tuesday on MSNBC’s “All In With Chris Hayes.”
What the U.S. is doing at the U.S.-Mexico border today by detaining hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants and children “fits very cleanly” inside the historical definition of concentration camps, Pitzer argued.
Such barbaric facilities existed decades before the creation of Auschwitz and other Nazi Germany political prisons, where millions of Jewish people were murdered in the Holocaust during World War II, she noted.
Though the term “concentration camp” today often elicits images of Holocaust death camps, it’s also been used historically to refer to the mass detention of people, often political prisoners or members of a persecuted minority group, without trial.
“The death camps ― which were on top of the existing concentration camps system, including Auschwitz and a series of other camps in which you had gas chambers, mass killings ― that is a singular moment in history,” Pitzer said Tuesday. “And for the people that want to respect that, I think that’s fine and that’s important.”
She continued: “If we want to call it ‘irregular detention,’ if we want to call it ‘extrajudicial detention,’ I don’t think we have to get stuck on that term. I wrote a history of the term ... and what I would really like people to know is that the same thing is happening here now.”
Ocasio-Cortez faced intense outrage this week from some congressional Republicans after sharing an Esquire article on Twitter that cited Pitzer to draw comparisons between concentration camps and immigrant detention centers at the U.S. southern border.
President Donald Trump’s administration “has established concentration camps on the southern border of the United States for immigrants, where they are being brutalized,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote in her tweet linking to the story on Tuesday. “This is not hyperbole. It is the conclusion of expert analysis.”
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the third-ranking House Republican, bashed Ocasio-Cortez in a tweet Tuesday, calling on her to learn “some actual history.”
“6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust,” Cheney wrote. “You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this.”
But not every concentration camp is a death camp, as the Esquire story noted.
“What’s required is a little bit of demystification of it,” Waitman Wade Beorn, a Holocaust and genocide studies expert, told the outlet. “Things can be concentration camps without being Dachau or Auschwitz.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggested to reporters Wednesday that she wasn’t aware of Ocasio-Cortez’s comments. But, at an event later, she issued a warning to her fellow party members that Republicans “will misrepresent anything that you say.”
Still, Ocasio-Cortez has stood by her comments, tweeting Wednesday that she would “never apologize for calling these camps what they are.”
“The US ran concentration camps before, when we rounded up Japanese people during WWII,” she wrote. “It is such a shameful history that we largely ignore it. These camps occur throughout history. Many refuse to learn from that shame, but here we are today. We have an obligation to end them.”
“If that makes you uncomfortable, fight the camps ― not the nomenclature,” she added.
The Trump administration began separating thousands of immigrant children from their parents who illegally crossed into the U.S. from Mexico as part of a “zero-tolerance” policy in April 2018.
A federal judge issued a ruling a few months later blocking that process and ordering the government to reunite separated families, though the administration has said it could take years to do so.
There’s been a massive surge in immigrants illegally crossing into the U.S. in recent months. Over 144,000 undocumented immigrants were detained in May, nearly three times as many taken into custody at the same time last year.
Many adults are transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which holds over 52,500 immigrants a day in more than 200 detention centers nationwide, according to NBC News.
Pitzer on Tuesday said a government’s reasoning for operating concentration camps is often to use a certain group of people as a “scapegoat” for a problem.
“You push it on a vulnerable group of people that you can label as somehow infecting a society, a national security threat to a society,” she said. “This is not a national security crisis. This is a humanitarian crisis. But we’re using the language of war to detain civilians.”