Header image of leaked posts from a popular Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) Facebook page.
Note: The following article contains discussion of rape and genocide.
One of the most interesting projects I’ve had the privilege of working on was a simulation designed by the National Defense University’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL) in tandem with the U.S. Holocaust Museum intended to help policymakers recognize and potentially respond to precursors of a mass atrocity. It centered on successive phases of an escalating crisis where a targeted population became subject to political hostility, dehumanization, and widespread abuses. The challenge for participants lay in not only recognizing the warning signs, but being attentive to tipping points that could lead to an outbreak of systematized murder.
The treatment of migrants and asylum seekers throughout the U.S. detention centers has left me with heavy premonitions that we teeter dangerously close to a potential mass atrocity. I’m far from the only American who has said as much, with certain politicians and commentators likening the abuse of Central Americans in our detention system to the maltreatment of Europe’s Jews prior to the Holocaust. This has itself led to ongoing contention about whether it’s ever acceptable to invoke the Holocaust by analogy, which I’d argue almost misses the point.
Will the outcome of our current crisis ever resemble the Holocaust in either methodology or scale? No, few things ever have. Does this have the potential to transform into any of history’s “lesser” atrocities? Absolutely. While atrocities of the Holocaust’s scale are rare, organized mass murder against designated ethnic groups is depressingly common - something the author John Dolan once referred to as “the hidden norm of history”. What we’re witnessing right now is of course not genocide. It’s just riddled with pre-indicators that have presaged every act of ethnic mass murder across the human timeline.
This is part of why Holocaust analogies provoke so much umbrage - we're taught to view the Third Reich as a manifestation of pure evil, a regime consisting of monsters so exceptional they exist practically out of time. The truth of the matter is that mass atrocities have been carried out since human beings were able to first systematize violence. Their executors were as fundamentally human as the rest of us - they loved their wives, relaxed with friends, and doted on their children. They were very typical people shaped by concerted preconditioning to think abuse or murder against those deemed unlike them was not only acceptable, but necessary.
The industrial systematizing of the Holocaust and sheer volume of death were indeed exceptional, but the preconditions that led to genocide were fundamentally boilerplate. As someone whose research has covered the origins of mass violence, what we're witnessing right now is a process of social, political, and institutional conditioning that will enable an escalation in cruelty. Given the right stew of socio-political conditions, human beings can be collectively goaded into either committing or overlooking atrocities against a hated and disempowered ethnic group. And let's be completely straightforward - the terrified and impoverished migrants huddled in our detention centers have absolutely nothing. Aside from their families - and even those are being deliberately broken. Which is, again, yet another step within an escalating dehumanization process.
The patterns that have presaged almost all mass atrocities can be rendered in a general template. These include:
- Dehumanizing propaganda, spread by both political authority and aligned media
- Denial of rights
- Forced detainment
- Preceding history of cruelty and abuses
- A military/law enforcement apparatus that is demonstrably hostile to the population in question
Every last one of these are currently in effect via the U.S. treatment of Latin American migrants. Let me break these down as explicitly as possible.
Propaganda and Dehumanization
As a common foundation, the targeted group is described as both subhuman and unequivocally menacing - akin to a disease, parasite, or predator. Nazi propagandists invariably referred to Jews as vermin while casting them as an unrelenting threat to the health of the Reich. Rwandan hate radio hosts ceaselessly labeled the country’s Tutsi population as “cockroaches” while likening their presence to an infestation.
This dehumanization process typically occurs at the hands of both political authorities and aligned media. Joseph Goebbels’ antisemitic rants were coupled with the publication of viciously degrading cartoons in Der Stürmer. The agitation of Rwanda’s anti-Tutsi politicians were matched by the inculcation of radio hosts to fear, hate, and eventually target their Tutsi neighbors. The current U.S. president has relentlessly described Mexican immigrants as both menacing and subhuman. Similar to how Nazi authorities alleged sexual perversion and criminal menace among Europe’s Jews, Donald Trump has cast Latin American migrants as a source of crime, rape, and national degeneration - even likening them to an infestation. The implication being that infestations must necessarily be exterminated.
An ongoing regime of dehumanization can take a multifaceted form, mixing dark warnings of the group’s responsibility for crime or social decay with “humorous” degradation of the demonized population. Ridicule is often used as a means of numbing a population to the basic humanity of their intended targets. If you listen to the transcripts of hate radio broadcasts that stoked the Rwandan Genocide, they were chock full of parodic or humorous songs that made whimsical jingles out of instructions to literally hack people to death. Even the Nazi’s Der Stürmer was full of comical grotesqueries. Of course they have to make jokes along the way, because the endpoint of mounting atrocities are unfathomably horrific.
Right-wing “comedian” Steven Crowder has made mean-spirited pranks and skits against Latin American migrants his stock-and-trade, broadcasting to his audience that hostile ridicule against them is a wholly acceptable, even enjoyable practice. This culminated most recently in a clip portraying a detained child that was separated from their family weeping in distress and begging to see his mother. The skit barely contained the most tenuous attempt at humor - with the child wearing a beanie and sobbing for a “burrito” seeming to be the intended punchline, if there is any. As is often the case, the more egregious the abuses become, the closer this form of agitation turns to outright portraying cruelty as funny without any attempt at evasion. Steven Crowder is just a particularly slack-jawed American incarnation of the Rwandan hate radio hosts who joked about murdering Tutsi “cockroaches”. You may argue that Crowder is a marginal or irrelevant figure, but this is someone with a social media audience far larger than almost any standing U.S. representative. Based on exposure and influence, Crowder speaks far more to the GOP zeitgeist than the likes of David Brooks.
Ardent propagandists of every stripe are a core prerequisite for inuring a receptive population to mass atrocity. And popular conservative outlets and commentators have dedicated themselves to demonizing latin American populations and alternately justifying and denying the systematic abuses of migrants caught within our detention system. It is abundantly clear that greater cruelties against detainees would not only be accepted, but outright cheered by swaths of an audience that have relentlessly absorbed the messaging of political figureheads and sycophantic media.
A regime of dehumanizing propaganda creates the psychological and social compartmentalization necessary to carry out mass murder, breaking down the moral compunctions that might otherwise provoke outrage or hesitancy. Just to make this abundantly clear - the rampant abuse of children occurring throughout our detention system is an abject moral disgrace. The fact that this has not provoked widespread condemnation amongst Trump’s more ardent supporters - who respond alternately with justifications, denial, or even gloating - proves the associated propaganda has worked.
Denial of Rights
Early persecution often occurs under a robust legal/institutional framework that either denies or revokes the dignity of a targeted population. From the Nuremberg Laws to expulsion of Armenians from political and academic positions throughout Ottoman Turkey, policymakers and agency overseers invested with state legitimacy begin taking broad measures that strip or even deny the existence of certain rights for the demonized group. This is a subtler component, but the erosion of humane treatment often occurs under judicial auspices. The Trump administration’s family separation policy directly communicated that those who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border weren’t even entitled to the right of an intact family structure - an overt act of cruelty given momentum through the banality of executive action.
This is part of why you hear right-wing commentators refer to undocumented migrants or asylum seekers as “illegals” or “illegal aliens”. Someone who has not only allegedly done something illegal, but is somehow themselves illegal, has ostensibly forfeited any claim to legal rights. This is particularly useful for justifying a regime of open abuse. It enables various forms of equivocation, with Trump apologists claiming they don’t actually hate migrants or want them to suffer, but they just don’t like that they came here illegally. This of course evades, and implicitly accepts, the ongoing cruelties.
Let me just underscore this - we're not targeting “illegals” or whatever mythical image of an unstoppable horde of MS-13 gang members Trump diehards are convinced will soon rampage unimpeded across America’s suburbs. What happens in practice is that you’re targeting families.
The targeted population is typically kept under sustained arrest or forced detainment, indefinitely and without stated plans for release. A period of physical segregation often predates mass murder, with various legal pretenses used to isolate the population in a single location under the control of military or law enforcement. In certain cases this is an intentional and methodical process, such as the ghettoization of Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust or mass arrest of Armenians prior to the Ottoman death marches. In less severe instances this can take a more gradual or superficially justified approach, such as Boer War concentration camps that were initially founded by British authorities as refugee centers before transitioning into death camps against Boer civilians as an act of collective reprisal.
This latter example is particularly relevant, as very few Boer civilians kept under detainment were directly murdered by camp overseers. Rather, the intentional deprivation of food and cramped, unsanitary conditions led to endemic starvation and disease - ultimately killing over 25,000 Boer detainees before the war’s close. Irrespective of scale or outset intentionality, forced detainment provides the physical infrastructure for large-scale murder against a population by hostile authorities that see their lives as worthless or hateful. Like Boer refugee zones that were established under less sinister auspices before their transformation into death camps, America's migrant detention centers both predate the Trump administration and have the potential to get much worse.
Irrespective of origin or alleged rationale for their confinement, populations under mass detainment are subsequently vulnerable to abuse at the hands of their captors.
History of Abuses/Demonstrably Hostile Law Enforcement
The final necessary precondition to mass atrocity against a demonized population is a military or law enforcement apparatus that hates the group in question and is demonstrably willing to inflict harm against them. This occurs at an institutional level where abuses are encouraged and systemically reinforced, resulting in a structure under which overseers inculcate animosity amongst military or law enforcement detachments that fosters an escalation in cruelty. Groups that have been tarred as subhuman, menacing, or unworthy of life are subsequently treated as such under situations of capture or detainment that eventually lead to mass death.
Migrants and asylum seekers are subject to a litany of abuses under the U.S. detainment system. These have included being served unsafe or poisoned water, deprived of adequate nutrition, kept in frigid temperatures, thrown in solitary confinement, denied proper medical care, denied basic sanitation, and being kept in egregiously cramped quarters. Reports of sexual abuse against women in CBP facilities are rampant. Many of these victims are not grown women, but underage girls. Male detainees are ridiculed and humiliated. Trans women detainees are subject to particular cruelty. Detainees are prevented from brushing their teeth or showering. These conditions have led to outbreaks of disease within holding cells. Children separated from their families are left without adequate care. Physicians and social workers who visit CBP centers have labeled them “torture facilities” and described the children as fearful and traumatized.
The ACLU obtained FOIA documents in 2018 that recorded children being punched in the head, kicked in the ribs, attacked with stun guns, and run over with a patrol vehicle. They also noted children being threatened with sexual abuse or being sexually assaulted so violently they screamed in pain. None of this is accidental. Despite feeble attempts to claim this a result of inadequate funding, these hostile and abusive conditions are a product of the human beings who oversee these facilities. The guards who run CBP holding centers manifestly hate the detainees under their control and routinely terrorize, beat, and violate them as a result.
Leaked text messages and social media reveal an internal culture at CBP of degradation towards Latin American migrants in which officers bond over mutually reinforcing their hatred of detainees under their watch. While looking into a CBP agent suspected of running down a Guatemalan migrant with his truck, federal investigators found an extensive history of preceding text messages shared with other agents that were riddled with insults and slurs. A Facebook group for CBP agents that was uncovered by ProPublica and has 9,500 members - nearly half the current number of Border Patrol officers - featured posts calling migrants “subhuman” and expressing wishes to burn them to death. It is worth noting that CBP leadership has known about this Facebook group since 2016, and did absolutely nothing about it. Which is not a shock, especially considering CBP chief Carla Provost was a member.
This Facebook group also included numerous sexually degrading posts about U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, including a photoshopped image of Donald Trump forcing her to perform oral sex. When U.S. representatives visited a Texas CBP facility in the wake of these disclosures, detainees told the lawmakers their guards referred to them constantly as “whores”. A wish to inflict sexual violence is often a sickening component of genocide and mass atrocity, one that accompanies a general culture of dehumanization. It’s worth pointing out that Rwandan genocidaires visited weeks of unceasing mass rape against the Tutsi women they openly referred to as “cockroaches”. Ottoman enforcers who drove Armenians into the Levantine desert quite literally raped their women to death along the way. In light of the obvious attention that went into the photoshopped image of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, I don’t doubt for a second its creator stoked a depraved thrill in imagining Dear Leader violating the young Latina woman.
What we’re seeing among CBP is not some anomaly or instances of “bad apples”. It is institutionally ingrained, a culture of hatred that is inculcated in recruits and internally reinforced. CBP whistleblowers have reported that officers are derided or ostracized for refusing to parrot leadership’s hatred of Latin American migrants. New agents are immediately taught to use hateful terms for migrants. As former CBP agent turned whistleblower Jenn Budd phrased it, “Cruelty is the point. They have the ability to treat families humanely but choose not to bc Border Patrol does not value the lives of immigrants. This is taught in the academy & reinforced by management.”
How it Could Happen
What begin as concentration camps can procedurally transform into death camps. This often occurs through exacerbating harmful conditions in ways that are increasingly lethal to the detained population. The grand atrocities of the Holocaust and Armenian Genocide unfolded from explicit plans ordered by political authorities to exterminate the targeted populations wholesale. What seems increasingly likely throughout America’s network of detainment centers is the process that occurred within Boer War concentration camps - the denial of food, water, shelter, and sanitation deepens without remission.
What’s so pernicious about this method is its ostensible deniability, a necessary component of any mass atrocity. This is why reports of cruelty throughout our detention system provoke reflexive hostility - the more obvious the evil, the more intense the alternating rationalization and dissociation must become. The cognitive dissonance would otherwise be too overpowering. It’s why early recruits within the einsatzgruppen who were ordered to repeatedly gun down Jewish families quickly went insane. Being forced to - for example - shoot a young girl, miss any vital areas, and look her in the eye as she screams in agony will cause the mind to unravel. It doesn’t matter if that child was a Jew you were taught to hate - in the throes of death, she’s still a child. It’s why both Saddam Hussein and the Third Reich eventually resorted to poison gas as a tool of mass murder against the Kurds and Jews respectively - it’s comparatively “easier” on the perpetrators than having to personally kill every target of one’s hate. And forced deprivation - starvation, exposure, disease - is even less arduous on the executors.
It is often mandatory to create both physical and psychological distance between oneself and the target of one’s collective animosity. Genocide by toxic gas is a modern invention limited in grand scale to the Holocaust and Anfal against Iraq's Kurds. Historically, large-scale murder has often been accomplished by “indirect” means like starvation, exposure, and deliberate exposure to disease. In order for a mass atrocity of any scope to occur, it is necessary to simultaneously hide and deny it. The less perpetrators are forced to directly inflict death, the less they risk being overwhelmed by the enormity of their crimes. Only the most abject monsters are able to carry out sequential episodes of direct murder without starting to break. Subjecting a detained population to life-threatening conditions allows both their captors and civil society at large to maintain the necessary compartmentalization.
The seeds of this are already well in place. ICE/CBP are killing escalating numbers of detainees through deliberate neglect. The Trump administration is also making a calculated effort of stocking the upper echelons of CBP with figureheads who are exceptionally hostile to migrants and asylum seekers. John Sanders, the former acting head of CBP, has stated that he resigned after a crisis of conscience following the death of a 16 year-old Guatemalan boy in CBP holding. The Trump administration immediately lunged to replace him with Mark Morgan, former ICE chief who has claimed Central American children are all MS-13 gang members in waiting. (In terms of the connection between dehumanizing propaganda and executive endorsement, it’s worth noting that Morgan made these comments on Tucker Carlson’s popular Fox News broadcast.) This is the sort of methodical undermining of institutional impediments that might otherwise prevent mounting atrocity.
Let me reemphasize this - demonization of children is an often mandatory component to mass murder. Nothing rattles the soul more than cruelty against the very young, and this is a moral barrier it is necessary to destroy if atrocities are to escalate. Donald Trump has claimed that Central American children are “not so innocent”. As Morgan himself attempted to claim during a congressional testimony, “the influx of minors into the country through the current crisis will provide [MS-13] with unlimited vulnerable prospects.” It should be noted that atrocities ranging from the Holocaust to the Armenian Genocide were executed under rationales of national security via a domestically lawful framework - a cover that allowed for broader acceptance of the cruelties at hand.
Current circumstances - abusive and potentially lethal deprivation in mass holding, a demonstrably hostile and cruel enforcement network, deliberate and overt political reinforcement, and little or no ability to halt the same - present a very quick and direct jumpoff point to passively murdering large quantities of detained migrants. All this would require is the aforementioned forced denial of food, water, medical care, and adequate shelter. These have long been tools of systemic murder across history, and every last one of these have already been exercised in some form throughout our detention system. Most importantly, all of these have occurred under the watch of CBP officers who intersperse this systemic regime of deprivation with spasms direct violence. In case anyone is left wondering, these are the genocidaires.
Investigators regularly stumble across the remains of migrants who perished while traversing the U.S. borderlands. Central Americans under CBP detainment are already a disempowered, isolated, uncounted for population. I don’t doubt their captors could find a convenient place to dispose of the bodies.
What is to be Done?
I will put this as bluntly as possible - it is abundantly clear that ICE/CBP are too institutionally corrupted to be reformed. It is impossible for me to examine the publicly available evidence and endorse their continued dominance over U.S. immigration processing. The culture of violence and dehumanization is reinforced from leadership down to the rank-and-file. There is no responsible solution aside from dissolving both agencies and radically overhauling how America treats migrants and asylum seekers.
There is another broader step I would like to propose as well - a sort of Marshall Plan initiative to invest in the reconstruction of Latin American countries whose civil society was destroyed by U.S. intervention. Over the course of the Cold War, U.S. policymakers backed death squads and political factions that engaged in unspeakable horrors across Guatemala and El Salvador. Both countries have never truly recovered from this, and the ensuing instability, crime, and violence causes their citizens to flee northward out of fear for their lives to this very day.
America has a fundamental moral and political responsibility to help repair this. It will alleviate the conditions in both countries that cause their citizens to flee in search of safety - they deserve to live in societies that aren’t rife with intervention-stoked destitution and violence. It will also be necessary to hold trials for the CBP officers who inflicted the most egregious abuses - particularly rape and sexual violence - and mete out appropriate sentencing. I would also suggest a truth and reconciliation commission - for both the architects of the most abusive immigration policies, such as Stephen Miller, as well as officials like Elliot Abrams who oversaw bloody and destructive intervention across Latin America - where the extent of their culpability is forced into public awareness. The desperate attempts to attack Ilhan Omar for simply pointing out the truth of Elliot Abrams’ crimes in El Salvador was unconscionable, and evidence of deep moral rot. In terms of justice and recompense, these are the absolute mildest steps I think will be necessary to take.
I’ve discussed the abject monsters who cheer on cruelties against Latin American migrants, but let’s not overlook those who take it upon themselves to become implicit apologists for ICE/CBP. This includes commentators who make bizarre attempts to equate the politicians who speak out most fiercely against concentration camps with Trump himself. Let alone self-anointed arbiters of respectable discourse who openly sneer at calls to abolish a manifestly abusive detainment system. It reveals the discomforting fact that establishment centrists and liberals are more comfortable allowing the abuses escalate than even consider taking the measures necessary to halt a looming atrocity.
Which American politicians are describing our concentration camp system with any honesty and lucidity? By and large only a small handful of comparatively radical, younger Democrat women - representatives who are openly dismissed by older establishment Democrats. The absolute least the Democrat leadership can do at this point is stop reflexively compromising with and acquiescing to the GOP. Popular right-wing congressman Rep. Dan Crenshaw has called those who speak out against migrant concentration camps “demagogues”, which is pretty rich coming from someone whose political career has involved wholesale transformation into a Trump cheerleader. As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer has noted about the Trump era, cruelty is the point. Don’t expect the GOP to have any pangs of conscience. They won’t. And for commentators who pathologically side with and defend the Dem power brokers, I suggest you reconfigure your sympathies. Nancy Pelosi’s undisguised contempt for the brave young women in her caucus who have the courage to investigate and testify against the ongoing abuses speaks for itself.
I had relatives living under Nazi occupation in the Netherlands. Despite being a small and disempowered country, the Dutch staged numerous acts of resistance that resulted in mass executions of Holland’s bravest citizens. Except this is not the Third Reich. Our democratic and electoral institutions are relatively intact. Dissent has not been outlawed. There is absolutely no excuse for the opposing party to not use every means to halt this. And there is no acceptable reason for the Democratic establishment's abject moral cowardice. Though I'd imagine the post-Reagan New Democrats’ affection for the carceral state might have something to do with it. There’s more than a few words to be said about a party whose leadership rallied behind both the Iraq War and mass incarceration yet adamantly refuses to consider dismantling a brutal concentration camp system. But I’ll leave that for another time.
Even in the case the GOP loses the White House in 2020, there is no evidence to suggest the Democrats who replace them will feel compelled to dismantle what is a manifestly violent detainment network. One of my apprehensions is that a disingenuous, establishment-friendly smooth talker with a lifelong career in “tough on crime” law enforcement gets elected and proceeds to do absolutely nothing. The institutional architecture remains fully in place, and the atrocities resume escalating when another right-wing administration is elected not long thereafter. The legacy of widespread destabilization and violence that U.S. meddling has stoked throughout Central America shows no signs of resolving, and climatic upheavals seem poised to compel even further displacement from the region. If we accept brutality and mass internment as the paradigm through which we treat migrants and refugees, the cruelties are only set to deepen.
So how do you compel a sclerotic party to act? Popular mobilization outside the party structure, widespread and at the community level. Do not accept the non-leadership of old guard Democrats whose reaction to an obvious moral crime is compromise with its propagators and censure towards those who speak most forcefully against it. Local networks across the United States have staged protests and direct action to bring attention to the abuses occurring throughout our detainment system. These organizations deserve support, promotion, and membership. The more it becomes clear that widespread and active domestic opposition to the U.S. concentration system is a growing political reality, the more this will empower legislators who are dedicated to abolishing the institutions in question.
Among the most impressive organizations is Never Again Action, a predominantly Jewish activist group that recently protested outside an ICE detainment facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey on June 30, 2019. Thirty-six members were arrested, which spurred a subsequent protest on July 2, 2019 led in part by IfNotNow where 1,000 American Jewish activists, many of themselves descendants of Holocaust survivors, gathered in Boston to protest against ongoing ICE/CBP abuses. These are the righteous among the nations, human beings possessing fundamental moral clarity who saw a mounting atrocity and took direct action in defense of its victims. So organize. Speak out. Describe our concentration camp system with directness and honesty. The darkest end is not inevitable.