Conditions on the Mexican border are unsustainable. Facilities are strained to breaking point by the surge of migrants. In early June, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was detaining about 52,000 border-crossers per day in a network of over 200 facilities—a dramatic increase from only months ago and thousands more than the system was designed to accommodate. And conditions are deteriorating. Internal government watchdogs note that poor oversight, neglect, and a lack of resources have combined to result in dangerous conditions for many migrants. Twenty-four detainees have died in ICE custody since Donald Trump took office, including children. That’s not a record, but it’s not acceptable either. This week, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators reached a $4.6 billion deal at Donald Trump’s request to address the deteriorating humanitarian crisis at the border. Everyone in government is treating the situation with the seriousness it deserves.
Well, almost everyone.
In a live broadcast on social media, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez raised the rhetorical stakes around the crisis by likening the Trump administration’s treatment of migrants to the Holocaust. This “authoritarian and fascist presidency,” she said, was running a network of concentration camps. “’Never Again’ means something,” Ocasio-Cortez closed.
It’s perhaps unremarkable, if not excusable, for a 29-year-old to deploy hyperbole and emotional reasoning on a medium that encourages both. It’s far more discouraging to see those kinds of remarks from a member of Congress. A saner political culture would dismiss them as the products of youthful inexperience, educational deficiencies, and misplaced zeal. After all, the claim is absurd on its face. But ours is not a sane political culture.
These detention facilities are not the invention of the Trump administration. They are not labor or extermination camps. They do not intern American citizens. No one is being forcibly reeducated in them. In her own defense, Ocasio-Cortez insisted that the “academic consensus on what constitutes a concentration camp” is “the mass detention of a community of people without a trial or due process.” Not only is this not the “academic consensus,” it betrays the hollowness of her own accusation. These are not detentions in lieu of due process—they are detentions prior to the application of due process.
There are over 890,000 pending cases in U.S. immigration courts—a backlog that has been building for decades. The backlog contributes to the length of detentions. So, too, do a lack of judges and a dramatic uptick in continuances attributable to Obama-era rules that sped up the processing of families and minors, leaving asylum-seekers without proper time to secure necessary documents and legal representation. Asylum-seekers are often released from legal detention to pursue their claims after initial processing. Minors, who by law cannot be detained for extended periods, are transferred to the custody of Health and Human Services, which places them with adult sponsors—some of whom are undocumented themselves and are not easily reached by federal authorities. Hence, the phenomenon of “lost” children separated from their parents, a problem that also predates the Trump administration.
This is more scrutiny than Ocasio-Cortez’s comments deserve, but reasoned discourse is no longer a value we hold especially dear. A cogent political movement would quickly recognize that defending the congresswoman’s indefensible remarks yields rapidly diminishing returns, resolve to throw her under the bus, and make room for advocates who can articulate their concerns about the conditions at the border more reasonably. But in a raw contest of personalities, there are no bad ideas, only bad people. And so, astoundingly, Democratic partisans in politics and media rallied to Ocasio-Cortez’s defense.
“If you spend a few minutes learning some actual history, you will find out that concentration camps are different from death camps and have a history that both predates and extends far past the Nazis,” MSNBC host Chris Hayes wrote when Rep. Liz Cheney objected to Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison.
“We need a word for the chutzpah of gentile supporters of a fascist president bent on ethnic cleansing giving the rest of us sanctimonious lectures on anti-Semitism,” New York Times opinion writer Michelle Goldberg vouchsafed.
“When we find ourselves rules-lawyering over the exact definition of ‘concentration camps,’” the author Laurie Penny opined, “that’s about when the dance of plausible deniability starts looking like a goose-step.”
Dismissing AOC’s invocation of the Holocaust, some in the press and academia even tried to convince observers that the congresswoman was really likening America’s treatment of migrants to the British internment of civilians in the Boer War.
As is often the case when a story reflects negatively on Democrats, political media’s focus quickly shifted from the subject of the story to the Republican response to the story. According to the Washington Post, Ocasio-Cortez doggedly “presses the case” for using the term “concentration camps” even amid “Republican outcry.” Highlighting the Republican reaction here serves no greater purpose than to provide the congresswoman with antagonists and the Post’s readers a foil.
The New York Times followed suit, reached for an old standby when reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg noted that the GOP had “pounced” on the comments—suggesting that Republicans are animated by opportunism rather than genuine revulsion. Buried in the Times dispatch was a revelation of at least if not more news value than the GOP’s response to Ocasio-Cortez: the Democratic Party’s non-reaction. Stolberg could find only one Democrat—a descendant of Holocaust survivors—who objected to this callous moral equivalency.
The final and most pitiful stage of intimidation campaigns like these is characterized by the effort to dig up “experts” who varnish indefensible ignorance with a gloss of academic legitimacy. Esquire found one, the author Andrea Pitzer, who also defined “a concentration camp system” as the “mass detention of civilians without trial.” The article went to great lengths to expand the definition of “concentration camp” while also faulting the Trump administration for seeking ways to discourage or prevent asylum-seekers from crossing the border in the first place.
“The longer they’re there, the worse conditions get,” said Pitzer. “We already know from reports that they don’t have enough beds for the numbers that they have.” But as recently as February, congressional Democrats sought to impose an arbitrary “cap on ICE detention beds” to force the Trump administration to focus on priority deportation cases. If ICE officers are equivalent in the minds of the left to concentration camp guards, would this not make congressional Democrats collaborators?
Social media is a hall of mirrors. It discourages nuance, reinforces biases, and rewards the radicalization of debate. The cycle intensifies as dissenters disengage from what passes for a conversation. Thus, Democrats and their sympathizers in the press convinced themselves that the conduct of law enforcement in the midst of an exogenous international crisis must be akin to a historic crime against humanity. To concede the point would be to allow Republicans a victory. So they don’t.
The crisis at the border won’t be resolved by throwing money at the problem. It demands comprehensive legal reforms and a coordinated international effort aimed at mitigating the conditions that have produced this human tide. Anything that makes that bipartisan necessity harder to achieve is unproductive. If Democrats really fancy themselves the “adults in the room,” they should start acting like it.