The pain and struggle in those camps must be spun into a persuasive narrative; and the phrase "concentration camps" comes with a narrative, with implications, with images of something that we globally swore we would never let happen again.
In New York City there's an organization that sometimes operates out of empty college classrooms and sometimes out of church basements.
Every week, hundreds of undocumented people flow into the crowded rooms, working with translators to fit their stories into I-589 asylum application forms.
One week a woman came in with her eight-year-old son. Her court date was in days, but she had yet to begin filling out her official forms; just part of her story lay in disarray on an intake sheet. As she told her story—which involved rape and murder and decades of abuse—she began to sob. If she went back to Honduras, she said, she would die.
Her story, which would likely make worldwide headlines if any fraction of it was being told by a white woman in America, is not unique at all; abuse of the kind she experienced is one of the most common reasons why migrants come to the U.S.-Mexico border to seek refuge. If you present yourself at the border as seeking asylum, you are legally entitled to a hearing, under domestic and international law; and once she tells her story to the court she may well not receive asylum. Still, for now she is one of the lucky ones: she made it past the camps at the border.
The Semantics of a Human Rights Crisis
This week, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described the camps holding migrants at the U.S. border as "concentration camps." Immediately, she faced protests from politicians across the nation, most of whom have never been to the camps at the border and whose main point of contestation was the argument that the prisons at the U.S. border cannot be compared to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.
Criticism of Ocasio-Cortez's word choice is a convenient and fundamentally flawed distraction from the reality of what is happening. Firstly, both the Jewish people who experienced that genocide and the migrants who are attempting to cross the border are being caged, dehumanized, and denounced as vicious security and economic threats. Arguments that propose the suffering of the Jews is incomparable to the suffering of these migrants are a sort of Olympics of tyranny on the most depraved scale. How can the pain of one group delegitimize the suffering of another?
As a Jewish woman, I feel strongly that any trauma lingering in my bone marrow from the deaths of my family does more to link me to the migrants at the border than it does to separate me from them. We are not solitary in our persecution. Our struggle, as well as the lessons we have learned, means that we should feel a nauseating shock of recognition upon hearing that a group of people is being caged in brutal conditions on the basis of where they were born.
Though the meaning behind words is ultimately more important than the words themselves, semantics and word choice are undeniably powerful. As humans, we cling to symbols and patterns to make sense of our disorderly world. Words have sway over us, which is perhaps why calling the border camps concentration camps has sent such shockwaves across news outlets—more shockwaves than the reports of freezing cages, desert shootings, and persistent abuse in government facilities have created. In truth, words and our ability to freely speak them are often more incendiary than incidents of abuse and human suffering.
This is why calling the camps at the border concentration camps is a powerful act of political protest, one that merits repeating. In order to effectively protest these camps, merely telling stories of the human suffering that occur within them is not enough. The pain and struggle in those camps must be spun into a persuasive narrative; and the phrase "concentration camps" comes with a narrative, with implications, with images of something that we globally swore we would never let happen again.
Image via Esquire
The Holocaust, like most genocides, did not arise spontaneously. It began because of money—because of economic insecurity in Germany, a nation that had once been powerful but found itself suffering after wartime loss and a recession. It began with scattered proposals that Jewish people and other minority groups were to blame for these problems. It took off as a way of making Jews leave the country. The violence started with sporadic murders. The camps came later.
Even if the U.S.'s persecution of migrants at the border never reaches the level of the Final Solution, this does not legitimize the mistreatment and brutality that are occurring in those overcrowded, freezing prisons in the desert. Should the Holocaust be the standard that we expect human rights violations to live up to in order to merit serious criticism?
Andrea Pitzer, author of "One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps," writes that the border camps qualify as concentration camps because the prisoners there are detained "without regard to individual circumstances, treating people as one mass, one group," and that the U.S. government, like the German government, is "presenting them as a national security threat to the country and then using as punitive means as the system will allow to detain them."
Image via CNN
This is a key requirement for the success of concentration camps: prisoners must be turned into shadowy, menacing masses. Through a variety of rhetorical strategies, the U.S. government has implemented this technique. Many Americans are convinced that migrants are criminals who should keep out of this country. They argue that refugees are not deserving of our justice system or our charity, nevermind that the justice system systemically targets poor and non-white people and that we are the richest nation in the world.
Most of the detainees are not criminals. Conditions in these migrants' homes are unbearable; the fact that they are willing to risk death at the U.S. border to escape shows this clearly. Migrants are usually not asking for charity or trying to steal the salaries of U.S. workers. They are asking for asylum. For mercy. For America to be a fraction of what some people once dreamed it could've been.
Image via The New Yorker
Call Them By Their Real Names
Rebecca Solnit writes that once we call injustices by their names, "we can start having a real conversation about our priorities and values. Because the revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides that brutality." Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has shown that she is unafraid to put this into practice, to look the murky viciousness of the U.S.'s treatment of migrants at the border straight in the eye. By calling the concentration camps what they are, she is replacing the language that legitimizes these injustices with language that condemns them. Unfortunately, she is largely alone in this.
Here is the name of our American S.S., the group that is fostering the concentration camps at the border: the ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Like the leaders of S.S., they also believe they're simply "doing their jobs").
Image via BuzzFeed News
Here is a number: the ICE held 42,000 migrants in its detention camps last year.
Here is a list of DHS reports about the conditions at the border, including titles like "Lack of Planning Hinders Effective Oversight and Management" and "Immigration and Customs Officials Do Not Follow Federal Procurement Guidelines When Contracting For Detention Services."
Here are just a few quotes from official statements about the camps: A 2017 inspection found "problems that undermine the protection of detainees' rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment." A Reuters report about the Paso Del Norte facility stated that "single adults were held in cells designed for one-fifth as many detainees as were housed there and were wearing soiled clothing for days or weeks with limited access to showers." It also stated that inspectors saw "detainees standing on toilets in the cells to make room and gain breathing space, limiting access to toilets." Additionally, there are reports of extreme temperatures, of physical and sexual abuse, of solitary confinement.
Right now, even the Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner John Sanders is demanding that the Senate pass a $4.6 billion dollar bill in emergency funding. If the bill is not passed, he testified, kids will keep dying.
Here are the names of some of the legally innocent people who have died at the border. Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7. Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, 8. Gurupreet Kaur, age 6, dead of dehydration in the Arizona desert. Roxana Hernandez, dead of untreated septic shock and HIV. Osmar Epifanio Gonzalez-Gadma, Jeancarlo Jiminez-Joseph, and Efrain Romero De La Rosa, all dead by suicide while in ICE facilities. Sergio Alonso Lopez, dead of internal bleeding after prison staff did not administer doses of methadone he needed to survive.
These names don't do justice to who they were and how they lived. No migrant story does, because migrants are whole people who want nothing but to live in America. They come for many reasons; they come knowing that they will be hated and discriminated against all their lives here—because, as poet Warsan Shire writes, "the insults are easier to swallow / than rubble / than bone / than your child body / in pieces."
Here are the names of some of the 200 ICE facilities:
The Adelanto Detention Center in California.
La Salle Processing Center in Louisiana.
The Aurora Detention Facility in Colorado.
Essex County Correctional Facility in New Jersey.
Fort Sill, an Oklahoma military base used to house Japanese immigrants during World War II.
The nameless makeshift camp underneath Paso Del Norte International Bridge, which connects Ciudad Juarez with El Paso, where hundreds of migrants were held outside behind a chain-link fence covered in razor wire.
The Tornillo Camp in Texas, meant to hold 400, now holding 2,400.
Here is the name of what these detention centers are: concentration camps. Remember these names. Imagine what you'll say when someone asks in the future: Did you know?
Image via The New York Times
The term is typically used to refer to a whole person, not a person's legal status, and so it therefore implies that the person themselves is not a viable human being, thus not entitled to any human rights protections.
The word "illegal" has become a buzzword in modern immigration discourse, a common way of describing someone who has crossed the border into America without papers.
The term is typically used to refer to a whole person, not a person's legal status, and so it therefore implies that the person themselves is not a viable human being, thus not entitled to any human rights protections.
Image via thoughtco.com
The term "illegal immigrant" was first coined to describe Jews fleeing during the second world war. "How can a human being be illegal?" asked the writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, pinpointing the contradictory nature of the term. In 2017, journalist Maria Hinojosa riffed on Elie Wiesel's description of illegality, stating that "Because once you label a people 'illegal,' that is exactly what the Nazis did to Jews.' You do not label a people 'illegal.' They have committed an illegal act. They are immigrants who crossed illegally. But they are not an illegal people."
Image from Time
Being labeled as illegal has severe consequences for those who fall under the term's shadow. An "illegal" immigrant cannot demand raises or report human rights abuses at work. Undocumented immigrants face the double pressure of fear of being sent back to where they came from and fear of being 'found out' in their new nation.
The majority of migrants labeled as "illegal" are actually doing work for low wages, and provide services while demanding nothing in return. In practice, their work is similar to mass incarceration, which keeps whole segments of the population out of sight while they perform unpaid labor and are unable to exercise their civil rights.
In the novel Dear America: Notes from an Undocumented Citizen, the Filipino journalist Jose Antonio Vargas outlines the unique stresses and pains that come with living as an undocumented civilian. "This book is about homelessness," he writes, "not in a traditional sense, but the unsettled, unmoored psychological state that undocumented immigrants like me find ourselves in. This book is about lying and being forced to lie to get by; about passing as an American and as a contributing citizen; about families, keeping them together and having to make new ones when you can't. This book is about constantly hiding from the government and, in the process, hiding from ourselves."
Vargas, a successful reporter, came to the US at eight and discovered he was undocumented at age 11; what followed were decades of trying to hide his status until he finally spoke out and became one of the most famous undocumented citizens in the public eye.
Image via Mother Jones
Every single migrant's story is different, and for many people, speaking out is not an option. Many people have to work, to support families or relatives at home, and cannot risk "coming out" as illegal like Vargas.
Image via CNN.com
Studies have found that undocumented immigrants—especially those of Latinx descent—are especially at risk of mental health disorders due to the unique combination of trauma and secrecy that often plagues their journeys to the United States. As Warsan Shire writes in her stunning poem Home, "how do the words / the dirty looks / roll off your backs / maybe because the blow is softer / than a limb torn off." Although living in an America that calls them "illegal" is preferable to remaining in their native countries, many migrants have written about the psychological impacts of living in constant fear, and of being "found out" on American soil.
Bigotry and xenophobia may be better alternatives than the violence that many migrants faced at home, but defining groups of people as "illegal" is a convenient way to strip human beings of their humanity, the very thing that lies at the heart of the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights. Peoples who are in flux are especially at risk of getting lost, as official laws refuse to help them; outside of the light of official regulations, people are quite literally disappearing, slipping into the cracks between policy and legal protection.
Image via thoughtco.com
Keeping people in the subterranean realms of the criminal justice system or beneath the umbrella term of "illegal," is the result of a cycle that relies on many elements that work to perpetuate it. Xenophobia is one of the important steps that keep this cycle in place. A pervasive distrust of foreigners is a way of creating divisions and continuing cycles of disadvantage. Human rights abuses happen when human beings become faceless, anonymous, and stripped of recognition and legal protection. Rejecting and silencing people because they are so-called "illegal" even if it is not consciously spoken, is a way of selectively subjugating certain voices.
Of course, America has never been open to all migrants. This nation has a history of drawing non-white migrants to it when it needed labor—such as with the Chinese in California during the building of the railroads in the 19th century—and sending them home via acts like the Chinese Exclusion Act once the work was completed. This nation has a history of silencing certain groups, making it so they have no chance to even take a crack at the American dream.
Everyone is allowed to use language to express their beliefs—that's one foundational premise of the American experiment that everyone can agree on (though of course in practice it gets more complicated). Language is always political, and the word "illegal" carries powerful implications that it should at least be understood, not thrown around as an abstract umbrella term.
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @edenarielmusic.
From Cardi B to Hamilton to Queen Bey herself, here are ten songs that have inspired and soundtracked the ascensions of female politicians and powerful women of the modern world.
If it wasn't clear from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's recent Twitter battle with Cardi B and Tomi Lahren, we're living in an era where politicians and musicians have the ability to influence each other on huge scales.
But music has long been a source of inspiration and power, especially for women or other people whose voices have been subjugated or silenced.
In honor of the newest class of women in Congress, and in celebration of women in politics in general, here's a list of ten songs that we think would make the perfect soundtrack to their ascensions, and might even inspire you to follow suit.
1. Cardi B – Best Life
Cardi B - Best Life feat. Chance The Rapper [Official Audio] www.youtube.com
The song's lyrics seem to align with Ocasio-Cortez's approach to communicating with her supporters, which has been radically honest and personal, as she frequently shares developments at work and at home via her Instagram stories. Though she was met with backlash from users who told her to "write intelligibly," Ocasio-Cortez's supporters cheered the reference.
Unabashedly outspoken and proud of their stratospheric rise to the top of their respective fields, Ocasio-Cortez and Cardi B are two women who seem to be on unstoppable paths—while determined to keep it real all the while.
2. Anaïs Mitchell – Why We Build the Wall
Anaïs Mitchell ft. Greg Brown - Why We Build the Wall www.youtube.com
When folk singer Anaïs Mitchell penned "Why We Build the Wall" in 2006 for her concept album Hadestown, she never imagined that its lyrics—which retell the story of the Greek god of death Hades and his quasi-American capitalist hellscape—would become so relevant.
The song is a call-and-response narrative between Hades and his citizens, who work ceaselessly on a wall in exchange for the economic security that living in Hadestown provides. It contains lyrics like, "The wall keeps out the enemy / and the enemy is poverty / and we build the wall to keep us free / that's why we build the wall." Hadestown, which also tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, is coming to Broadway in the spring of 2019.
This song seems like it would make the perfect satirical rallying cry for Nancy Pelosi, who denounced Donald Trump's request for $5.7 billion to build his wall between the U.S. and Mexico after his speech on January 8th, two weeks in to what would become the longest government shutdown ever.
3. Aretha Franklin – Respect
Aretha Franklin - Respect  (Original Version) www.youtube.com
Aretha Franklin passed away in August of 2018, but her legacy lives on within every woman who ever wanted to be treated with honor and—as perhaps her most iconic song repeats—R - E - S - P - E - C - T. (Hint: that's all of us).
Aretha's unforgettable voice soars above the song's infectious musical backdrop, coalescing to form a track that is alternatingly prideful and enraged, hopeful and world-weary. This song's message seems too vast to be contained to one politician or time period. It's a timeless sentiment that could change the world, if we'd only listen.
4. Ms. Lauryn Hill – Everything is Everything
Lauryn Hill - Everything Is Everything www.youtube.com
In June, recently-announced 2020 presidential candidate Kamala Harris posted a Spotify playlist as a homage to important black musicians of the 20th century. The third song on the playlist, "Everything is Everything" from the iconic The Miseducation of Ms. Lauryn Hill, echoes sentiments that Harris has proclaimed in her own speeches.
Its powerful lyrics, "Sometimes it seems / We'll touch that dream. But things come slow or not at all / And the ones on top, won't make it stop / So convinced that they might fall," seem like they could be a rallying cry for Harris, a politician campaigning on promises of "American values" and "not putting people in boxes."
Hill's message of everything is everything is a beautiful sentiment about the way that all people and all issues are interconnected and cannot be addressed independently, and she has long been a powerful voice for women of color.
Kamala Harris's work as a prosecutor is under scrutiny from leftists everywhere, but judging by her playlist, at least her music taste is up to par.
5. Lin-Manuel Miranda – Satisfied
Female characters take the backseat to the titular protagonist of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, but Angelica Schuyler's Satisfied is a show-stopper in a class of its own. Sung by the sister of Eliza, Alexander Hamilton's wife, it is a flashback to the night that they all met, when Angelica developed feelings for Alexander but decided she needed to set her sights on marrying someone richer.
Angelica, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry in the musical, spits some of the show's fastest bars and hits some of its highest notes in this virtuosic performance, which reveals the extent of her brilliance as well as the extent of her regret at not taking a chance on love.
It might be easy to dedicate this song to Hillary Clinton, whose tenacious determination to win the presidency and refusal to be satisfied with a mere first-ladyship (or Secretary of State position) does belie a similar ambition to Angelica's.
But Angelica, with her razor-sharp wit and social sensibilities, seems similar to some of Congress's outspoken freshmen members, such Ayanna Pressley, who has been an outspoken critic of Trump and many of his policies from her first moments on the House floor, running on the message "Change can't wait" with an urgency evocative of Angelica's intense drive.
6. Taylor Swift – Bad Blood
Taylor Swift - Bad Blood ft. Kendrick Lamar www.youtube.com
Taylor Swift has had her fair share of beef with other artists, but until 2018 remained staunchly apolitical. But after Swift announced in an Instagram post that she "could not support Marsha Blackburn," the politician lashed out—provoking serious flashbacks to the time that Taylor Swift allegedly attacked Katy Perry over a feud involving backup dancers through her video, Bad Blood.
The stakes were slightly higher in this situation, and Blackburn still snagged the Senate seat in spite of the star's opposition.
"Of course I support women and I want violence to end against women," said Blackburn in response to Swift, who had also written that the politician's "voting record in Congress appalls and terrifies" her. Blackburn has been a supporter of Trump's border wall as well as his efforts to end Obamacare.
7. Questlove's Entire Michelle Obama Playlist
Michelle Obama's Musiaqualogy Vol 1 1964-1979 by Questlove
Michelle Obama's Musiaqualogy Vol 2. 1980-1997 by Questlove
Michelle Obama's Musiaqualogy Vol 3. 1997-2018 by Questlove
The musician Questlove of the band The Roots has created three 100-song playlists for Michelle Obama's Becoming book tour, and every song is worth putting on repeat. Entitled The Michelle Obama Musiaquology, it is a journey through time (and occasionally, space) filled with mournful, fierce, and empowering tracks—much like the biography it was designed to soundtrack.
Obama's Becoming is more about hope and unity than it is about politics and division, and so are most of the songs in this playlist. An exuberant melding of jazz, pop, and the occasional stylistic outlier, Questlove's compilation elevates voices of joy, pride, black power, and solidarity in an era in desperate need of them. Featuring icons ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Kendrick Lamar, it's a survey of music throughout history that has given hope to those who need it most.
8. MILCK – I Can't Keep Quiet
MILCK - Quiet www.youtube.com
Newcomer MILCK's powerful composition became the anthem of the first Women's March, and since then, the artist has continued to release waves of meaningful music while maintaining a confessional and motivational social media presence.
The vulnerable and passionate song that made her famous could be an anthem for kids like Emma Gonzalez, speaking out against gun violence, and for all the other women who have spoken and will continue to reach out and fight for their beliefs.
9. Against Me! — True Trans Soul Rebel
Against Me! - True Trans Soul Rebel [ALBUM VERSION] www.youtube.com
In the shadows of the Trump administration's ban against transgender people in the military, this song is a reminder that trans people not only exist but will continue to fight.
Transgender politician Christine Hallquist did not win in the general Vermont elections for governor, but she did secure a spot in the 2018 Democratic primaries, the first time a transgender person has been nominated by a major party. And more transgender and LGBTQ people ran and won races in November 2018 than ever before, signaling an upswing of pride in spite of the Trump administration's anti-trans policies.
Against Me!'s True Trans Soul Rebel has long been an anthem for the transgender community, an outcry of pain against a world that constantly threatens them with erasure.
10. Beyoncé – Who Run the World (Girls)
Beyoncé - Run the World (Girls) (Video - Main Version) www.youtube.com
No list of songs for female politicians would be complete without Queen Bey's presence. This song is one of the crown jewels of feminist anthems, with its infectious beat pounding underneath Beyonce's velvety vocals and its iconic refrain. This one goes out to all the future female politicians, including the hopefully soon-to-be first female commander-in-chief.
With that, we welcome the 42 new female congresswomen, celebrate the women who came before them, and encourage all the women and trans people coming after to rise up and sing out. Listen to these songs enough and internalize their messages, and it could be you in those seats someday.
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City.