Detention Centers Or Concentration Camps: Reflections From El Paso’s Holocaust Museum

Mary McLoughlin
Opinion Editor

In El Paso⁠—just a few miles from the Clint detention center currently being described by various news media sources and politicians as concentration camps⁠—stands the only fully bilingual Holocaust musuem in the country.  The musuem started as a small room in a Jewish community center where Henry Kellen, a Holocaust survivor in El Paso, began to share his story after an uprise of Holocaust denial in the media. Like many museums, its mission is to “combat prejudice and intolerance through education, community outreach, and cultural activities.”

The museum features a series of rooms that trace the development of the Holocaust. It starts with life in Europe before the Nazi party, explores the propaganda central to the spread of Nazism, documents the removal of Jews to ghettos, and then, eventually, to concentration camps.

The exhibit starts with the question that humans ask in response to most atrocities, “Why?,” and explains:

“There is no simple answer. The Holocaust was not logical or inevitable, yet it happened. What probably contributed most to the eventuality of the Holocaust was racism, combined with centuries old-bigotry that was renewed by a nationilistic fervor emerging in Europe.”

I’ve spent the last month in El Paso working on research about human rights at the border, and in response to the atrocities I have witnessed here, I’ve found myself struggling to understand that same why. Why did a father and daughter have to drown in the Rio Grande? Why have seven children died in U.S. immigration custody in the past year? Why have 2,635 children been separated from their family?

While walking through the museum and seeing the progression of evils that enabled the Holocaust, it was hard not to see the common threads of xenophobia at the center of atrocity past and present.  As I was leaving the museum, a group of El Paso high school students echoed a similar sentiment, and a museum staff person told them that while it’s hard to compare the scale of the two situations, it’s easy to draw parallels between the racism and nationalism in both moments when so much of the same rhetoric is at the center of both atrocities.

On social media and in the news, I’ve seen these parallels drawn by news coverage focused on the conditions of U.S. detention centers. There has been incredibly important journalism documenting the outright evil that occurs when children are locked up in prisons, forced to sleep on cement floors, and denied access to the most basic necessities. When reports expose that conditions are so bad that 24 people have died in ICE custody, it is probably fair to draw parallels between these detention centers and the concentration camps described by the museum as having conditions where “many prisoners died of hypothermia, starvation, disease, or physical exhaustion.”

But the first gallery of the museum reminds us that the Holocaust didn’t start with concentration camps. Instead, it reminds us that U.S. immigration policies that shut out the vulnerable have been, and continue to be, a death sentence for those in need of protection.

In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt hosted the Evian Conference, a gathering of representatives from 32 countries to discuss how to respond to Jewish refugees fleeing persecution. The museum describes this conference as “the green light for Hitler’s Holocaust” because, while the countries expressed sympathies for the refugees, they lacked a willingness to increase their quotas of accepted refugees. The U.S. said its hands were tied by existing immigration quotas that needed congressional approval to be adjusted.

Though the anti-semetic violence Jewish refugees were fleeing in 1938 and the gang violence those seeking refuge at our border are fleeing today are different, it is the same attitude of racist indifference that continues to compel us to shut our doors. And in our choice to shut our doors in 1938, and in our choice to build a wall in 2019, the lives lost as a consequence of our actions are worth the same.

Ciudad Juárez , Mexico 

Two weeks ago, I met a father and his eleven-year-old son from Guatemala. They were waiting in Juárez, Mexico and hoping to find a lawyer to help them seek asylum in the U.S. I got the chance to sit in on their legal consultation. The father’s voice wavered while he explained the severity of the gang violence in his hometown. While the father explained that the gangs threaten the families of all boys as young as ten years old who refuse to join, his son looked down and counted his fingers over and over again.  And when the father explained that coming to the U.S. was the only thing that would keep his son and the rest of his family alive, the boy’s fidgeting increased. They had traveled for weeks by train and on foot and left two children and the boy’s mother behind. In 98 degree weather, they both wore a coat because it was the only article of clothing they had.

The lawyers explained that to qualify for asylum in the United States, an individual must prove that they have been the victim of persecution, or have a well-founded fear of persecution,  in their home country based on their race, religion, nationality, political views, or membership in a particular social group. Last year, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered U.S. immigration courts to stop granting asylum to victims of gang violence and domestic violence. When the lawyers explained that this meant they would not be able to take on their case, I could not bring myself to look at the faces of either the father or son as they received what could likely be a death sentence at the hands of my country.

And this case wasn’t an anomaly. In all the consultations I sat in on that day, migrants described cases of violence and poverty that made fleeing their country their only option for survival, but none of their circumstances fit the very particular standards of asylum. Even if migrants can prove that their lives are in danger because of violence, they won’t be granted asylum unless that violence is proved to be motivated by their identity. Without the chance of asylum, their only legal option is to return home to wait for visas in countries whose waitlists span decades they can’t afford.

When I walked back to the U.S. over the bridge that connects Juárez and El Paso, I saw the makeshift tents used to detain asylum seekers and heard their voices through the flaps of torn tarps. Though every person has a legal right to present themselves at a port of entry and seek asylum, I watched border patrol agents turn back a mother and her baby, a practice that has become common. The easily observable conditions at this port of entry made it clear that our political action must start with the way we receive those seeking refuge, but the families I left behind crossing that bridge also made it clear that our nation’s conscience won’t be clear until we make sure everyone whose life depends on it is able to make it to and through that point of reception.

When we learn about atrocities such as the Holocaust, and when we read the coverage of U.S. detention centers, it’s justified to respond with a blind fury. But when we take a broader look at history and a closer look at the present, we see that the worst of what humans do is often preceded by and dependent upon the political choices that don’t make headlines.

Two weeks ago, I watched our laws turn away a father and son. No one will call it deliberate evil. No one will hear the father’s voice waver as he explains to his son the choice they will make to either stay in Juarez where asylum seekers who are not allowed into the U.S. face danger and violence or the choice to return to Guatemala where his son will face the violent gangs whose mere description made his hands shake. If either of them die as a result of that choice, we will not know. We will not count their death as our fault. Their names will not appear in our museums. Their lives will not be remembered by our memorials.

Though the United States makes the choice of which of the migrants who come to our gates for protection will live or die, we do not claim responsibility for the deaths that occur when we damn refugees to return to the violence they fled. And just as our choice to cling to rigid migration quotas in 1928 forced Jewish refugees to remain in a country that would soon kill them, our choice to cling to rigid migration quotas in 2019 means migrants from Central and South America will die there. While it is true that our detention centers today are a story of a great and apparent evil, our legacy of migration policies has also too often been a story of widespread apathy and indifference.

This Isn’t Just a “Trump” Issue

In the Democratic debates this week, all the candidates easily expressed outrage for the conditions of our detention centers, but if we are to learn from our mistakes, we have to do so much more. We must pen policy that saves lives instead of only responding to conditions that are most visibly endangering them. The same racist xenophobia that compelled Brian Kilmeade of Fox and Friends to argue that “like it or not, these aren’t our kids. Show them compassion, but it’s not like he is doing this to the people of Idaho or Texas” also compelled the more subtle cruelties of the Obama-era regime of deportations. Beyond being outraged when we see children in cages treated like animals, we must demand that every migrant is recognized for his or her fullest humanity.

We cannot let our discussions of immigration and border policy begin and end with debate about whether or not detention centers are concentration camps. And while abolishing these centers should be our first priority, we must also look for the candidates who are going to make room for real justice. Healing the full scope of immigration injustice means more than just blaming and undoing Trump’s policies. Though Trump’s tactic of child abuse as a form of deterrence might feel incomprehensible and unprecedented, this action follows years of political policies that used fear and cruelty to discourage migration from south of the border.

We can’t let the frantic energy to stop atrocity distract us from the systemic work of ordering our immigration system around justice. Even when migrants who are seeking asylum are processed in conditions that forefront human dignity, the rates of asylum cases that are accepted are lower in El Paso than any other jurisdiction in the country. And we must make a pathway to accept the influx of migrants fleeing gang violence in Central and South America who do not qualify for asylum by restoring and expanding Temporary Protected Status, a humanitarian stay that provides a legal status to immigrants from countries deemed to dangerous to return to.

At the border’s Holocaust musuem, I sat between the cruelty of the past and the cruelty of the present, and I wondered what it would take to stand, with courage, against the cruelty of the future. I am hopeful enough to believe that we will vote Trump out of office and that the crisis at our border will not escalate to the scale of the Holocaust, but I have been heart broken by enough stories at our border to know that our political reality does not need to turn into the Holocaust before it can been deemed deplorable. Trump is an easy and deserving villain, but his detention centers are not the only thing killing immigrants. As hard as it is to accept that the subtle and systemic evil that kills migrants is just as serious as the viral evil of headlines, that both Democrats and Republicans have committed grave injustices against migrants, it is only when we are honest with ourselves that we can refuse complacency and choose justice.

Even when the news cycle makes it feel impossible, justice is a choice. The borderland’s Holocaust museum doesn’t end with evil. The final section of the museum is an exhibit titled “Heroes: Resistance and Rescuers⁠—The Hall of the Righteous.” This exhibit tells the stories of those from around the world who refused to be apathetic and, “at the risk of punishment and possible death,” practiced “selfless acts of humanity and moral courage.”

 As I read about the moral courage of individuals from different countries and walks of life who refused to be complacent in the face of the Holocaust, I was reminded of the various individuals I met doing that same resisting and rescuing last summer in El Paso while working on the Moral Courage Project—of the whistleblowers and activists in El Paso’s most impoverished barrio who fought for education and environmental justice for its immigrant community, of mothers and grandfathers who worked to create a space of love and family in the shadow of a wall of division, of Catholic leaders who followed Christ’s law to welcome the stranger instead of unjust immigration policies rooted in cruelty, of community organizers who sacrified their own safety to empower their neighbor, and of activists and ordinary individuals who overcame every obstacle to offer their community the services that they need.

After making my way through the museum, I sat on a bench next to an older woman with whom I had walked through the museum with side by side as we followed the course of history in a somber silence. She spoke no English, and I spoke no Spanish, and though we could not offer each other words, she offered me a tissue.  We sat together beneath a sign that read “You are my witness. Eres mi testigo,” and together we bore the weight of humanity’s inherited history as our shared burden. I thought about the task the museum gave us⁠—to witness, to take in the story of great evil without cowering from its most irreconcilable moments, to see humanity beyond difference, to learn from the best and the worst of what humans are capable of us, to do better in response.

At the very same time, El Paso’s Bishop Seitz was accompanying migrant children across the bridge from Mexico to the United States. He asked, “Standing here at the U.S.-Mexico border, how do we begin to diagnose the soul of our country?” Questions like Seitz’s and the question of “why” that starts the Holocaust musuem can be answered by looking at the racism, xenophobia, and cruelty that happen in our world. But they also need us to consider what didn’t happen⁠—people who decided not to vote, people who responded only with thoughts and prayers, people who trusted the law over their own conscience. And after we have confronted and diagnosed our own apathy, we are given the choice to fix it.

If you’re interested in learning more about and supporting local efforts of justice and Moral Courage at the border, the Annunciation House is one of the largest shelters for refugees and asylum-seekers, Las Americas is a non-profit law firm that provides free and low-cost legal services to migrants and asylum seekers, and the Border Network for Human Rights is a grass-roots community organization that educates migrants about and promotes civil and human rights.

Images taken by Mary McLoughlin