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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said the U.S. is running concentration camps. Many historians are skeptical

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson June 20, 2019
Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman June 20, 2019


Recent assertions by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., that U.S.-run detention centers for migrants are "concentration camps" drew immediate rebukes from some politicians, Jewish groups and social media users.

"This administration has established concentration camps on the southern border of the United States for immigrants, where they are being brutalized with dehumanizing conditions and dying.

This is not hyperbole. It is the conclusion of expert analysis," she tweeted June 18.

Her tweet didn’t specifically mention Nazi Germany, but she used the term "never again" on her Instagram, a phrase often used as a warning to prevent another genocide like the Holocaust.

In a subsequent tweet, Ocasio-Cortez offered a distinction between "concentration camps" and "death camps."

"And for the shrieking Republicans who don’t know the difference: concentration camps are not the same as death camps. Concentration camps are considered by experts as ‘the mass detention of civilians without trial.’ And that’s exactly what this administration is doing."

Some had strongly negative reactions.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., tweeted, "This is wrong @AOC. These are incredibly dangerous and disgusting words that demean the millions murdered during the Holocaust."

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democratic presidential candidate, said Ocasio-Cortez "was wrong. You cannot compare what the Nazis did in the concentration camps."

We decided to take a closer look at whether historians believe the label "concentration camp" can be reasonably applied to the migrant detention camps now being operated in the United States.

Historians we contacted said it was possible to make a case that the term "concentration camp" is a more general term than just referring to camps in Nazi Germany. However, these historians said Ocasio-Cortez glosses over some important differences.

They also said that the strong, longstanding association of the term "concentration camps" with Nazi Germany likely overwhelms any technical similarities the two types of camps may have. We won’t rate this item on our Truth-O-Meter for that reason.

When did the concept of a "concentration camp" emerge?

Nazi Germany was not the first nation to use concentration camps. The term dates from the eve of the 20th century, when it was used to describe policies used in at least three conflicts: South Africa’s Boer War, Spain’s campaign against Cuban insurrectionists and the United States’ campaign against Philippine insurgents.

The intent was to "cut insurgents off from their support," said David J. Silbey, a Cornell University historian. "It was an effective tactic, but a brutal one, uprooting people from their homes and often leading to mass outbreaks of disease and starvation among the captive populations."

Beginning in 1917, the Soviet Union used what were commonly known as "forced labor camps" to repress dissidents. The Soviets also forced people from the Baltic States and Poland into camps following their invasions of those countries in 1939.

Germany established concentration camps shortly after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Contrary to the popular image of concentration camps as killing factories, most facilities were initially designed for slave labor.

"Systematic killing didn’t begin until the invasion of the Soviet Union, and it wasn’t until the January 1942 Wannsee Conference that the Nazis formally decided on a policy of extermination," said Stephen Shalom, a political scientist at William Paterson University. These became what historians often refer to as "death camps."

Over time, the distinction in the popular mind between the different types of camps blurred. The reality, though, is that the early camps produced deaths from neglect or overwork, rather than carrying out executions.

"None of the camps were pleasant, but the death camps were certainly the worst," said Lance Janda, a military historian at Cameron University.

Japanese-American internment camps

The United States operated camps to hold Japanese-Americans following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, which drove the U.S. into World War II.

Though generally referred to as "internment camps" or "relocation camps," these complexes have occasionally been referred to as "concentration camps," including by Chief Justice John Roberts in 2018.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines "concentration camp" as "a camp where persons are confined, usually without hearings and typically under harsh conditions, often as a result of their membership in a group the government has identified as dangerous or undesirable."

Ocasio-Cortez and her staff have pointed to such linguistic precedents to argue that U.S. detention camps for migrants can be reasonably described as "concentration camps."

Some scholars agree that similarities exist.

"As historian of fascism & Holocaust, I would also call these centers concentrations camps," tweeted The New School historian Federico Finchelstein.

Colgate University sociologist Jonathan Hyslop, who was also quoted in an Esquire magazine article that Ocasio-Cortez has cited, told PolitiFact that the definition of "concentration camp" is more elastic than most people think.

Today’s migrant detention facilities in the United States

So where do today’s detention centers in the United States fit in?

Adult immigrants in federal custody who are either waiting to be deported or waiting for a resolution of their immigration case are held in government-run centers or other contracted facilities.

Immigrant rights advocates have long warned about poor standards and the mistreatment of detainees at some detention facilities. Generally, information about detention facilities can be difficult to obtain, inconsistent and outdated, and overall lacking in transparency.

The Office of Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security on June 3, 2019, issued a report detailing concerns about Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainee treatment and care at four detention facilities. The report is based on unannounced 2018 inspections, in which investigators "observed immediate risks or egregious violations of detention standards at facilities."

Among the issues documented: overly restrictive segregation, inadequate medical care, unreported security incidents, and significant food safety issues.

On June 21, the Associated Press reported that a legal team that interviewed 60 children at a facility near El Paso found that "kids are taking care of kids, and there's inadequate food, water and sanitation for the 250 infants, children and teens at the Border Patrol station."

Separately, there are about 13,700 immigrant children in the federal government’s care, at an average length of 44 days in May 2019, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services told PolitiFact. These children crossed the border illegally alone, without a parent or guardian, and are also waiting for a decision on their immigration case.

As government officials seek sponsors for the children, the detainees receive a bed, meals, medical care, and showers. But the facilities have recently been directed to scale back some services, such as education and recreation, citing lack of sufficient funds.

Some historians point to ‘intent’ as a major distinction

Overall, experts described the U.S. detention facilities as being far different from those of the earliest concentration camps, or from the Nazi camps — even from the ones that weren’t "death camps."

"The original purpose of concentration camps was to remove the populace from areas that were controlled or contested by guerrillas and thus deny the guerrillas popular support in its tangible forms — food, shelter, information, recruits, and so on," said Texas A&M University historian Brian McAllister Linn. "This is not the purpose of the detention facilities in the Southwest."

Janda — who emphasized that he is unhappy with the current U.S. detention policy — nonetheless drew a distinction based on intent.

"What we’re doing is just not the same as what the Nazis or the Soviets did, and it’s a disservice to people suffering under dictatorships around the world to act like it is," Janda said. "We’re not rounding up legal citizens, or going after specific minority groups and holding them indefinitely to squash dissent."

Richard Breitman, an American University historian, was among several experts who said they would have avoided the term "concentration camp."

While the term "does show where abuse and dehumanization might lead," he said, "it confuses more than it explains."

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Our Sources

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Twitter, June 18, 2019

Esquire, An Expert on Concentration Camps Says That's Exactly What the U.S. Is Running at the Border, June 13, 2019

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, The Nazi Camp System: Terminology, Accessed June 19, 2019

New York Times, Ocasio-Cortez Calls Migrant Detention Centers ‘Concentration Camps,’ Eliciting Backlash, June 18, 2019

The Hill, Ocasio-Cortez stands by concentration camp remarks: 'I will never apologize,’ June 19, 2019

Waitman Wade Beorn op-ed in Washington Post, Yes, you can call the border centers ‘concentration camps,’ but apply the history with care, June 20, 2018

NBC, Trump administration cutting education, recreation, legal help at migrant children shelters, June 5, 2019

Waitman Wade Beorn, Twitter thread, June 18, 2019

NBC, Trump administration cutting education, recreation, legal help at migrant children shelters, June 5, 2019

Texas Monthly, In El Paso, Border Patrol Is Detaining Migrants in ‘a Human Dog Pound,’ June 11, 2019

CNN Timothy Snyder, Liz Cheney and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez are both wrong on concentration camps, June 19, 2019

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Letter to Congress, 2019

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Death Detainee Report, Accessed June 19, 2019

Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global history of Concentration Camps, Twitter, June 3, 2019

Andrea Pitzer op-ed in GQ, How the Trump Administration's Border Camps Fit into the History of Concentration Camps, June 18, 2019

CNN, Exclusive: DHS watchdog finds expired food, dilapidated bathrooms amid 'egregious' conditions at ICE facilities in 2018, June 7, 2019

Associated Press, "Migrant Children Describe Neglect at Texas Border Facility," June 21, 2019

Office of Inspector General, Concerns about ICE Detainee Treatment and Care at Four Detention Facilities, June 3, 2019

Office of Inspector General, Concerns about ICE Detainee Treatment and Care at Four Detention Facilities, June 3, 2019

Office of the Inspector General, Management alert, May 30, 2019

PolitiFact, How do standards measure up at immigration detention centers? A special report, Sept. 6, 2017

Email interview with Anthony Clark Arend, government and foreign service professor at Georgetown University, June 19, 2019

Email interview with Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, June 19, 2019

Email interview with Richard Breitman, American University historian and author of The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution, June 19, 2019

Email interview with Robert Gellately, Florida State University historian and co-author of The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective, June 19, 2019

Email interview with Omer Bartov, Brown University historian and author of Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz, June 19, 2019

Email interview with Brian McAllister Linn, Texas A&M University historian and author of Guardians of Empire: The U.S. Army and the Pacific, 1902-1940, June 19, 2019

Email interview with Waitman Wade Beorn, University of Virginia history lecturer and consultant U.S. Holocaust Musem, June 19, 2019

Email interview with Jonathan Hyslop, Colgate University professor of sociology and anthropology, June 19, 2019

Email interview with Lance Janda, military historian at Cameron University, June 19, 2019

Email interview with Joseph McCallus, professor at Columbus State University and author of Gentleman Soldier: John Clifford Brown and the Philippine-American War, June 19, 2019

Email interview with David J. Silbey, Cornell University historian and author of A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899-1902, June 19, 2019

Email interview with Stephen R. Shalom, political scientist at William Paterson University and and coauthor of The Philippines Reader: A History of Colonialism, Neocolonialism, Dictatorship, and Resistance, June 19, 2019

Email interview with Mark Weber, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 19, 2019

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said the U.S. is running concentration camps. Many historians are skeptical