• Immigration and the Concentration Camp Debate


By Isabella Guerra Uccelli

Since 2018, thousands of migrants have come to the United States from Central and South America with the hope of declaring asylum. The Trump administration has sought to discourage asylum seekers with a series of policy decisions including family separation, detention, and an effort to limit opportunities to file for asylum at points of entry to the country. As a result of these decisions, more than 81,000 migrants are being held in detention centers run by the Department of Homeland Security, ICE, and the Department of Health and Human Services. Critics, including members of Congress and human rights organizations, have argued that these detention centers violate fundamental human rights. A report earlier this month by the Department of Homeland Security’s own Inspector General documented the brutal realities of the detention centers. The question is how to adequately talk about the realities in a way that encompasses the true nature of the situation.

Debates have recently arisen about the language used to refer to these “detention centers.” In an attempt to provide perspective, NPR’s Code Switch podcast hosted by Shereen Marisol Meraji and Adrian Florido interviews Karen Ishizuka, curator of “America’s Concentration Camps,” and Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps. The interviews showcase a longstanding history of debates over the applications of the term “concentration camps.”

These are profound linguistics debates with real world consequences. Florido, talking about the lasting association of the word with the Holocaust stated, “for a lot of people, including people who are genuinely upset and angry about what is happening today in these facilities… going as far as to call them concentration camps still feels like going too far because at some point the definition did change.” A property of language is that it acquires new meanings since the language is shaped by usage. As Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin wrote: “Neutral dictionary meanings of the words of a language ensure their common features and guarantee that all speakers of a given language will understand one another, but the use of words in live speech communication is always individual and contextual in nature.”

In this specific case, though, the association of the term concentration camp with the Holocaust seems to have changed the earlier and potentially more neutral definition. For example, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, in its definition of “concentration camps” includes the term’s common usage: “a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard used especially in reference to camps created by the Nazis in World War II for the internment and persecution of Jews and other prisoners.

But there is another layer to the linguistics analysis. The debate reveals the way that language can be used to cover up or minimize human rights abuses. Some argue that the language used to describe events such as Japanese Internment during World War II and the current immigrant “detention centers,” are euphemistic and minimize the gravity of the events it describes. In response, some people are using the term “concentration camps” to bring attention to the atrocities that are not being encompassed by the current language chosen to describe them. As educators, this is an opportunity to explore past and present and consider why language matters.


In this podcast, you will hear from Ishizuka and Pitzer who provide context on the historical use of the term concentration camp, how its uses have evolved over time, and their perspectives on the application of the of concentration camps to the detention and incarceration of migrants in the US today. 


Guiding Questions

  1. What are you hearing in the podcast?
  2. What is the role language is playing in immigration debates? Does language matter?
  3. At one point, Karen Ishizuka quotes a retired admiral of the Navy who says, “Why should we let anybody else tell us how to tell our own story?” Think about this quote. Is everyone able to tell their own story? Who decides what labels to use to categorize fault lines in history? 
  4. List examples of arguments for and against broadening the usage of the term “concentration camps” to describe what is happening today.
  5.  After listening to the podcast, what language do you think should be used to describe immigrant detention centers? And what is your rationale? 
  6.   Both Ishizuka and Pitzer’s definitions of concentration camps have one line that is similar and is absent from many dictionary definitions of the term:

The people in power removed a minority group from the general population and the rest of society let it happen.

It’s about who you are rather than what you’ve done. They have a demonized population that becomes to be regarded as subhuman, a willingness on the part of the population to tolerate bad treatment of those identified by the government as a threat, to tolerate detention.

What are the bolded statements highlighting? How do these definitions shift our perspective of past and current situations? What can we learn from past history and do differently now?

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