It’s time to be clear: Migrant children are being held in concentration camps and the Trump administration is fascist.

Apparently, migrant children are being underfed and denied mattresses, heat, and basic sanitation, and not just at a facility in Clint, Texas:[1]

The reports of unsafe and unsanitary conditions at Clint and elsewhere came days after government lawyers in court argued that they should not have to provide soap or toothbrushes to children under the legal settlement that gave Ms. [Elora] Mukherjee and her colleagues access to the facility in Clint. The result of a lawsuit that was first settled in 1997, the settlement set the standards for the detention, treatment and release of migrant minors taken into federal immigration custody.[2]

So yes, it was bizarre when a U.S. attorney seemingly sought to justify this treatment:

Arguments before the United States Court of Appeals are usually dry, esoteric, and nerdy. What would it take to make one go viral? This week, in a clip that launched a million angry Facebook posts, we found out. It took a lawyer for the United States telling a panel of incredulous Ninth Circuit judges that it is “safe and sanitary” to confine immigrant children in facilities without soap or toothbrushes and to make them sleep on concrete floors under bright lights.[3]

And when things are this far over the top, I tend to back off, more out of revulsion than any sort of intellectual clue that maybe this isn’t quite what it seems. But Ken White, more popularly known on Twitter and by his blog as Popehat, explains:

United States District Judge Dolly Gee, who considered hundreds of declarations from minors and their parents, ultimately ruled that CBP was violating the Flores Agreement. In 2017, during the Trump administration, she found that CBP failed to provide adequate food and water to minors, that it did not maintain the facilities at adequate temperatures, and that it deprived the minors of sleep by confining them on concrete floors under bright lights. Gee also found that CBP’s obligation to provide “safe and sanitary” conditions included providing soap, dry towels, showers, toothbrushes, and dry clothes. Gee ultimately ordered CBP to appoint a monitor to bring its facilities into compliance with the Flores Agreement.

Gee’s order put the government in a technical legal bind. When a federal judge appoints an official to monitor compliance with an already existing injunction or agreement like the Flores Agreement, the government cannot immediately appeal. Such a measure is considered an “interlocutory” order—an intermediate one that does not generate a final decision suitable for appellate review. The government can only appeal if the judge modifies the prior injunction or order.

So that’s what the United States argued. In its appeal to the Ninth Circuit, the United States—through Fabian and the other attorneys of the Office of Immigration Litigation—claimed that Gee had altered the deal. They argued that by ruling that “safe and sanitary conditions” specifically required things like dry clothes and toothbrushes and showers and not sleeping on concrete under bright lights, Gee changed the Flores Agreement and “substantially altered the legal relations of the parties by reading new requirements into the Agreement.” That was the premise of their assertion that they could appeal, after all.[4]

Suffice it to say, it didn’t go well:

The judges ultimately suggested that the United States should consider whether it wanted to maintain the appeal—a signal that litigants ignore at their grave peril.

The United States’s loathsome argument—that it is “safe and sanitary” to confine children without soap, toothbrushes, dry clothes, and on concrete under bright lights—is morally indefensible. It’s also a spectacularly foolish argument to raise in the famously liberal Ninth Circuit, where the United States should have expected exactly the reception that it got.[5]

White’s larger argument is that the problem does not lie solely with the Trump administration. The Obama administration bears responsibility as well and there is a culture at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP)[6] that is, well, pretty much what Philip Zimbardo would very likely have predicted would develop, especially when higher ranking officials are actively hostile toward detainees.[7] Naturally, I won’t be seeing a retraction from Brian Resnick, who labeled Zimbardo’s work a “fraud,”[8] anytime soon.

It’s time to be clear about some things. Meriam-Webster defines a concentration camp as

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.[9]

Facilities such as the one in Clint clearly meet this definition. Note that the defense against this charge seems to rely solely on U.S. exceptionalism; it does not really justify the conditions under which detainees are being held but seeks instead to invoke the Holocaust[10] to deny the dictionary definition. This amounts to the same specious charge of ‘anti-Semitism’ used by the Israeli government to attack critics of its treatment of Palestinians—it is hardly surprising then that neoconservatives are prominent among those who advance it.

And yes, it’s time to point again to my definition of fascism as

an ideology that seeks to institutionalize structural and physical violence against some or many subaltern groups on the grounds of bigotry and to increase its own public support through the exploitation of such violence and bigotry. This bigotry may take several forms including nationalism, scapegoating, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. To the extent that it succeeds, it acts as a self-reinforcing feedback as public support enables further and more extreme violence.[11]

Remember always that Donald Trump is seeking to appeal to his base. His over-the-top abuse of migrants seeks to reinforce authoritarian populist and paleoconservative support. These facilities are concentration camps[12] and the Trump administration is fascist. They might not be sending migrants to gas chambers but if they can treat children the way they are,[13] that’s not a very long step away.

  1. [1]Caitlin Dickerson, “‘There Is a Stench’: No Soap and Overcrowding in Detention Centers for Migrant Children,” New York Times, June 21, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/21/us/migrant-children-border-soap.html
  2. [2]Caitlin Dickerson, “‘There Is a Stench’: No Soap and Overcrowding in Detention Centers for Migrant Children,” New York Times, June 21, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/21/us/migrant-children-border-soap.html
  3. [3]Ken White, “Why a Government Lawyer Argued Against Giving Immigrant Kids Toothbrushes,” Atlantic, June 23, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/06/why-sarah-fabian-argued-against-giving-kids-toothbrushes/592366/
  4. [4]Ken White, “Why a Government Lawyer Argued Against Giving Immigrant Kids Toothbrushes,” Atlantic, June 23, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/06/why-sarah-fabian-argued-against-giving-kids-toothbrushes/592366/
  5. [5]Ken White, “Why a Government Lawyer Argued Against Giving Immigrant Kids Toothbrushes,” Atlantic, June 23, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/06/why-sarah-fabian-argued-against-giving-kids-toothbrushes/592366/
  6. [6]Ken White, “Why a Government Lawyer Argued Against Giving Immigrant Kids Toothbrushes,” Atlantic, June 23, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/06/why-sarah-fabian-argued-against-giving-kids-toothbrushes/592366/
  7. [7]Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (New York: Random House, 2008).
  8. [8]Brian Resnick, “The Stanford Prison Experiment was massively influential. We just learned it was a fraud,” Vox, June 13, 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/6/13/17449118/stanford-prison-experiment-fraud-psychology-replication; Brian Resnick, “Philip Zimbardo defends the Stanford Prison Experiment, his most famous work,” Vox, June 28, 2018, https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2018/6/28/17509470/stanford-prison-experiment-zimbardo-interview
  9. [9]Meriam-Webster, “https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/concentration%20camp,” n.d., https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/concentration%20camp
  10. [10]Peter Beinart, “AOC’s Generation Doesn’t Presume America’s Innocence,” Atlantic, June 21, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/06/aoc-isnt-interested-american-exceptionalism/592213/
  11. [11]Updated July 7, 2019: David Benfell, “A simple definition of fascism,” Not Housebroken, July 6, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/07/06/a-simple-definition-of-fascism/
  12. [12]I first said this in David Benfell, “Police called for a relationship made in Hell,” Irregular Bullshit, June 22, 2019, https://disunitedstates.com/2019/06/22/police-called-for-a-relationship-made-in-hell/
  13. [13]Caitlin Dickerson, “‘There Is a Stench’: No Soap and Overcrowding in Detention Centers for Migrant Children,” New York Times, June 21, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/21/us/migrant-children-border-soap.html

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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