Summer Vacation in An Age of Concentration Camps
July 24, 2019 12:26 PM   Subscribe

Dr. Charli Carpenter is spending her summer "vacation" visiting migrant concentration camps. Follow her blog posts (individual links below the fold) at Lawyers, Guns & Money, and her Twitter feed for more frequent updates.

In her first post about the trip, Dr. Carpenter lays out the rationale for spending her summer vacation at the border:
This summer I have simultaneously watched the crisis on the US Southern border unfold from behind the safety of my laptop screen and Twitter feed and in the comfort of an air-conditioned western Massachusetts coffee-shop. Ive called my representatives, Ive made my donations, Ive gone to my local protests, all those things citizens do. What has chewed at me is observing in myself a curious inability to engage with this great crisis as a scholar because it seems not quite relevant to my expertise.

I don’t do refugee policy, I tell myself.  I don’t do Latin America. I don’t understand the bureaucratic politics of asylum procedures in the US. As a citizen I can weigh in on such things but as a political scientist, I must stay objective, detached, a-political. I must speak up only when my expertise matters.

How much does this kind of thinking hobble we scholar-Americans from maximizing our influence as members of the political elite in times of national crisis? As intellectuals, US academics hold both power and privilege, especially in summer where we are less constrained than many Americans by the grinding demands of our jobs. Yet little professional banalities like these have surprising stopping power. They urge people like me (well me, anyway) toward taking a vacation, burying myself in my regular projects, or planting a garden once done with my normal quotient of everyday activism and atrocity blogging.

Not this year. Call them what you will – concentration camps, detention centers. There are human rights violations happening on our border. Children are dying. War-affected civilians are being denied refuge, in violation of international law. This summer I’m abandoning my coffee-shop, neglecting my garden, canceling my vacation plans, saying no to other professional efforts. I’m using my international law knowledge, off-contract time and relative freedom of mobility to mobilize not just policy-makers, but my fellow Americans on both sides of the aisle, in what small ways I can – whether it’s my area of expertise or not. Perhaps none of this will make a difference. But I can’t afford to be blithely doing research on faraway things, reviewing tenure files and going to the beach this year.
Part 2 of the series covers her first couple of days, in which she met with some fellow professors to get the lay of the land, and discuss the best ways in which outsiders can help:
Here on the border, a lot is going on, but much of it is hard for outsiders to easily hook up with unless they have the time to make a long-term commitment. Harvey told me folks who come in from outside need more than a week of vacation time in the summer, they need that long just to train since, as a representative from the Border Network for Human Rights said to me, “otherwise they can revictimize the victims.” So, local organizations are looking for volunteers who can spend six months or a year. Harvey also pointed out Spanish skills are important, especially since the greatest needs will be on the other side of the border as Trump enacts more and more policies to prevent asylum-seekers from remaining here even while they’re awaiting asylum hearings. As Fernando Garcia, my BNHR contact said, “We are going to be seeing mass refugee camps on the Mexican side before very long.”

The advice I keep hearing from local activists is not for folks to parachute in to help the refugees unless they have specific skills to provide, like Charles Martel, my friend and colleague who just returned from a week of volunteer lawyering. And this is quite consistent with what conflict researchers know about how an influx of untrained outsiders can do more harm than good in refugee settings abroad.

Instead, says Garcia, for outsiders who want to come down and help, the best way to think about it is to work not on the refugee relief side but the denunciation side. Border Network for Human Rights is a good starting point because they focus on advocacy rather than service delivery – as XX said to me, “challenging the systems and strategies by this administration and any administration. We would welcome Americans from around the nation to join us in pushing back on these policies.”

And fortunately “bearing witness” of this type does not require Spanish, nor long-term investment. It could involve a simple trip down by plane for a specific focusing event or protest. As Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist and specialist in non-violent protest movements told me before I departed, solidarity encampments and sustained protest events can have an important signaling effect even if they don’t create immediate change. They signal to [legislators] and media that the issue remains and agenda-item, to the imprisoned that they are not alone, and to the world that Americans are not standing by idly.
Carpenter's third post takes readers on a tour of the perimeter of the Paso del Norte detention center, which was the subject of a report by the DHS Office of Inspector General that detailed severe overcrowding, hygiene, and safety issues. No such issues for visitors to the area, though, as Carpenter notes in this passage:
For me, though, equally fascinating were the banalities on the outside that subtly encouraged Americans not to look, not to touch, not to investigate, just to carry on comfortably with their own pedestrian lives.

For example, I found myself fixated on the public toilets just outside the walls. Perhaps it was the emphasis on sanitation in the public debates, the fact that House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings that very day had erupted at acting DHS head about children sitting in their own feces, but I couldnt help but marvel at the preposterously out-sized cleanliness of these toilets provided for the passersby in the little park area outside the walls.

These toilets were straight out of Star Trek. I had never encountered such sterile, clean, sophisticated porta-potties in a public park. Even just approaching them you had the feeling you had stepped onto another planet. A planet far, far away from concentration camps. Surely the government who could provide such facilities for passersby could never deny children soap.
The most recent post might be the most revealing and sobering in the series thus far. In it, Carpenter engages conversation with some of the guards at the Paso del Norte facility, providing a rare window into their worldview. Some highlights from the conversation:
Me: "What kind of resources do you need to welcome these refugees, process their claims quickly, provide shelters instead of prisons, in line with international law?"

Guard: "No matter how many resources, if you build the facilities for 1,000 then 5,000 will come..."
Me: "Germany took in 300,000 refugees. That's a nation my father fought against in World War II. Could we not be as generous as Germany?"

Guard: "How can we help these people if we can't even take care of the homeless and orphaned children here at home?"
Me: "I think we can help Americans and help refugees. That's why I vote Democrat. How do you vote, sir?"

Guard: "I'm a Republican. I feel like under Obama I couldn't do my job."
Me: "But is it your job to lock up children? Do you personally feel this is right? If you could make the law would you want us to be a nation that welcomes refugees?"

Guard: "I think we are. We just need to make sure they follow a process."
For 3 hours this guard and I talked through this fence. While we spoke, I watched three boys maybe age 12 apprehended. The guard assured me they wd receive the best care. The guard I spoke to the day before at this same spot swore there were no children in this facility.
Carpenter's most recent (as of this posting) thread on Twitter highlights some of the lies she was told by the guards at the facility, with links to news stories refuting their claims.
posted by tonycpsu (6 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
They are America's finest example of "just doing their jobs", or to put it a more familiar way "just following orders".
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:42 PM on July 24, 2019 [6 favorites]

Guard: "I'm a Republican."

You don't say.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 1:21 PM on July 24, 2019 [7 favorites]

When you're the oppressor, oppression is just another paycheck.
posted by dw at 3:28 PM on July 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

"How can we help these people if we can't even take care of the homeless and orphaned children here at home?" You can help these people by releasing them to family members or sponsors, who would take better care of them for less money and certainly less misery, while their processing goes on.
posted by Miss Cellania at 6:57 PM on July 24, 2019 [10 favorites]

Potemkin potties
posted by a humble nudibranch at 11:47 PM on July 24, 2019

It is parroted by Fox News that the reason we have homelessness is not the removal of social safety nets, but all that foreign aid to other countries.
posted by benzenedream at 1:13 AM on July 25, 2019 [4 favorites]

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