President Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday declaring he would end separation of children from parents at the U.S. border, which might or might not actually happen. Thursday morning, Customs and Border Protection said the government would stop referring cases against parents crossing the border with children for prosecution. (The story was denied by the Justice Department.) The same afternoon, The Daily Beast reported the government's new plan to hold detainees on military bases, perhaps in Texas and Arkansas.
These flailing responses reflect the general chaos of the White House, but also jam up the system, rendering it more damaging and dysfunctional for those trapped in it. Tracking the fate of each individual detainee should be a priority in the midst of this pandemonium.
But there are other, more panoramic reasons to keep an eye on detention practices along the border. The further things move outside the traditional legal process in these detention facilities, the more likely the camps are to evolve into something more malignant. The longer the detention and the more secret or hidden the facilities, the worse the possibilities for what can happen.
In my research and reporting on mass civilian detention around the world in the last hundred years, I found that again and again, countries where low-grade indefinite detention was allowed to fester, worse things came to pass.
This has been true in the largest and most barbaric examples of mass civilian detention—what were popularly known as concentration camps in the first half of the century. After the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917, they made extensive use of detention camps against political opponents and class enemies in the civil war that followed. At the end of that conflict, these camps were nearly eliminated. But in November 1923, a dying Vladimir Lenin signed off on establishing the Solovetsky Special Purpose Camp at a monastery complex on islands north of the Russian mainland. Years later, it would become the model for the Soviet Gulag.
In the spring of 1933, the Nazis, too, began with concentration camps that looked very much like other examples already existing in the world. But they expanded on camp infrastructure and the number of groups targeted for detention then experimented with techniques for mass murder until, nearly a decade in, they invented extermination camps to carry out genocide, reducing detainees from a name to a number, then to nothing.
But sometimes the damage from detention increased simply because an existing site was a ready tool at hand for those with malicious intent. In 1939, France rushed to set up camps in a matter of weeks for half a million Spanish Republicans fleeing the Civil War, providing limited food in poorly located sites.
These collections of barracks started out as refugee camps. But once World War II broke out in September 1939, France interned German "enemy aliens" in some of these same camps, even though many of the new detainees were Jews who had fled Nazi rule. Conditions in camps like Gurs, a few miles north of the Spanish border, were bad enough that political theorist Hannah Arendt pondered committing suicide there. By March 1941, detainees described Gurs as "Hell." In August 1942, two years after France fell to the Nazis, French officials in the Vichy regime began deporting nearly 4,000 Jews from the camp north toward Paris and then east to Auschwitz.
At other times, countries launched new systems despite knowing better. After dozens of nations around the globe built internment camps during World War I, the British evaluated their policy and decided that it had been a mistake to adopt mass detention without acknowledging the level of risk posed by each person. When World War II began, they did not initially move toward universal detention of military-age males who were enemy aliens. But as Germany scored victory after victory, England began to fear invasion. Churchill's government locked up all enemy aliens regardless of the classification they had been given, holding some domestically and deporting thousands overseas to detention camps. This policy meant that Jewish refugees and Nazi sympathizers were held in the same camps, at first in the same barracks.
More often in history, camps have gotten worse because of poor planning or negligence. The first uses of the words "concentration camp" for civilian detention took place near the turn of the century in Cuba and southern Africa. In Cuba, Spanish imperial forces herded hundreds of thousands of peasants behind barbed wire. In southern Africa, the British forced the families of rebel Boer fighters into militarized tent cities. In both cases, shoddy quarters, blistering heat, inadequate rations, and governments that could not or would not help led to staggering mortality rates, for a combined total of more than 200,000 civilian deaths.
Those earliest camps began more than a century ago, but it's not necessary to look that far back in history to see the danger posed by the precedent of irregular detention. In the early 1990s, from the end of George H.W. Bush's presidency to the middle of Bill Clinton's first term, tens of thousands of Haitians and Cubans set sail for America, seeking asylum. They were interdicted and detained at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Over time, conditions on the detention side of the base worsened. Detainees rioted, and soldiers had a hard time regaining control. Prisoners were held in a variety of camps; the most difficult were held at Camp X-Ray. "Some of the migrants were humiliated and beaten," writes Jess Bravin in The Terror Courts, "or hooded, handcuffed, and left to swelter in the tropical sun, or held for extended periods in painful positions."
As a candidate, President Clinton had condemned interdiction as cruel and illegal, but after taking office, he defended the policy in a case that went to the Supreme Court. The court sided with the government in June 1993, noting that the detainees would have to touch U.S. soil in order to access legal protections. Detention at Guantanamo did not qualify.
HIV-positive detainees on the base were kept in an isolated camp without adequate medical care or legal assistance. When a federal district judge agreed to hear their case, the administration made a deal with plaintiffs' attorneys: In exchange for allowing the HIV-positive Haitians into America, the judge's order was vacated, keeping any suggestion that U.S. courts could assert jurisdiction over Guantanamo off the books.
Unaccompanied Cuban children held at the base were admitted to the U.S., but Haitian children fleeing government turmoil alone were classified as "economic migrants" and kept out, with the US arguing that the military regime in Haiti had been deposed, while Cuba's government had not changed. Attorneys for Haitian child detainees filed suit alleging "blatant discrimination," but their arguments were eventually rejected.
It was this preexisting history of detention at Guantanamo and the implication that the island was outside the reach of U.S. courts that helped make it such a promising candidate for deliberately brutal detention of Al Qaeda suspects after 9/11.
The first of those detainees to arrive were caged—like the noncompliant Haitian detainees before them—behind chain-link fences at Camp X-Ray. Years after the initial abuse of refugees and the segregated, harsh treatment of sick detainees, Guantanamo expanded into a torture camp, the visible crown jewel in a network of black sites run by the administration of George W. Bush.
Even in democracies, low-grade horrors tend to lead to bigger ones.
What specifically does this have to do with Texas and other U.S. immigrant detention facilities? There is already a history of mistreatment and abuse in these kinds of facilities. The Flores agreement, guaranteeing children certain protections, took effect in 1997, more than a decade after lawyers for teenage plaintiff Jenny Lisette Flores argued that the conditions of detention had violated her rights. In addition, during President Obama's second term, a judge cited family detention centers in Texas as being in "material breach" of provisions requiring children not be held in prison-like conditions.
In Virginia, a detention facility was accused of abusing immigrant teenagers, who described being strapped down and handcuffed with bags over their heads. (Virginia’s governor demanded an investigation on Thursday.) Federal court filings in a lawsuit unearthed by the Texas Tribune this week allege that immigrant children at the Shiloh Treatment Center in Manvel, Texas, were held down and injected with psychoactive drugs. These problematic settings now appear to be evolving into something worse, with Trump's "zero tolerance" policy moving openly against all border-crossers as an undifferentiated criminal class.
There are international standards for how to deal with asylum-seekers that do not involve charging them with crimes. There are existing solutions for handling large numbers of asylum-seekers that are effective and less expensive, if we are willing to not treat them as criminals. We need to address the immediate danger to children and parents from both separation and indefinite detention, for reasons of humanity. But we should also keep an eye on the larger danger to our society that these camps present. The longer we keep them in place, the more doors we open to new, crueler kinds of detention. We are watching it happen in real time.
Andrea Pitzer is the author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps.