The debate over whether “concentration camps” is the right term for migrant detention centers on the southern border has drawn long-overdue attention to the American government’s dehumanizing treatment of defenseless children. A pediatrician who visited in June said the centers could be compared to “torture facilities.” Having studied mass atrocities for over a decade, I agree.
At least seven migrant children have died in United States custody since last year. The details reported by lawyers who visited a Customs and Border Protection facility in Clint, Tex., in June were shocking: children who had not bathed in weeks, toddlers without diapers, sick babies being cared for by other children. As a human rights lawyer and then as a political scientist, I have spoken to the victims of some of the worst things that human beings have ever done to each other, in places ranging from Cambodia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Sri Lanka. What’s happening at the border doesn’t match the scale of these horrors, but if, as appears to be the case, these harsh conditions have been intentionally inflicted on children as part a broader plan to deter others from migrating, then it meets the definition of a mass atrocity: a deliberate, systematic attack on civilians. And like past atrocities, it is being committed by a complex organizational structure made up of people at all different levels of involvement.
Thinking of what’s happening in this way gives us a repertoire of tools with which to fight the abuses, beyond the usual exhortations to call our representatives and donate to border charities.
Those of us who want to stop what’s happening need to think about all the different individuals playing a role in the systematic mistreatment of migrant children and how we can get them to stop participating. We should focus most on those who have less of a personal commitment to the abusive policies that are being carried out.
Testimony from trials and truth commissions has revealed that many atrocity perpetrators think of what they’re doing as they would think of any other day job. While the leaders who order atrocities may be acting out of strongly held ideological beliefs or political survival concerns, the so-called “foot soldiers” and the middle men and women are often just there for the paycheck.
This lack of personal investment means that these participants in atrocities can be much more susceptible to pressure than national leaders. Specifically, they are sensitive to social pressure, which has been shown to have played a huge role in atrocity commission and desistance in the Holocaust, Rwanda and elsewhere. The campaign to stop the abuses at the border should exploit this sensitivity and put social pressure on those involved in enforcing the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
The identities of the individual Customs and Border Protection agents who are physically separating children from their families and staffing the detention centers are not undiscoverable. Immigration lawyers have agent names; journalists reporting at the border have names, photos and even videos. These agents’ actions should be publicized, particularly in their home communities.
This is not an argument for doxxing — it’s about exposure of their participation in atrocities to audiences whose opinion they care about. The knowledge, for instance, that when you go to church on Sunday, your entire congregation will have seen you on TV ripping a child out of her father’s arms is a serious social cost to bear. The desire to avoid this kind of social shame may be enough to persuade some agents to quit and may hinder the recruitment of replacements. For those who won’t (or can’t) quit, it may induce them to treat the vulnerable individuals under their control more humanely. In Denmark during World War II, for instance, strong social pressure, including from the churches, contributed to the refusal of the country to comply with Nazi orders to deport its Jewish citizens.
The midlevel functionaries who make the system run are not as visibly involved in the “dirty work,” but there are still clear potential reputational consequences that could change their incentives. The lawyer who stood up in court to try to parse the meaning of “safe and sanitary” conditions — suggesting that this requirement might not include toothbrushes and soap for the children in border patrol custody if they were there for a “shorter term” stay — passed an ethics exam to be admitted to the bar. Similar to the way the American Medical Association has made it clear that its members must not participate in torture, the American Bar Association should signal that anyone who defends the border patrol’s mistreatment of children will not be considered a member in good standing of the legal profession. This will deter the participation of some, if only out of concern over their future career prospects.
The individuals running detention centers are arguably directly responsible for torture, which could trigger a number of consequences at the international level. Activists should partner with human rights organizations to bring these abuses before international bodies like the United Nations Human Rights Council. They should lobby for human rights investigations, for other governments to deny entry visas to those involved in the abuses, or even for the initiation of torture prosecutions in foreign courts. For someone who is “just following orders,” the prospect of being internationally shamed as a rights abuser and being unable to travel freely may be significant enough to persuade them to stop participating.
When those directly involved in atrocities can’t be swayed, their enablers are often more responsive. For-profit companies are supplying food and other material goods to the detention centers. Boycotts against them and their parent entities may persuade them to stop doing so. Employees of these companies can follow the example of Wayfair workers, who organized a walkout on Wednesday in protest of their company’s sale of furniture to the contractor outfitting the detention centers. Finally, anyone can support existing divestment campaigns to pressure financial institutions to end their support of immigration abuses.
Many Americans have been asking each other “But what can we DO?” The answer is that we call these abuses mass atrocities and use the tool kit this label offers us to fight them. So far, mobilization against what’s happening on the border has mostly followed standard political activism scripts: raising public awareness, organizing protests, phoning our congressional representatives. These efforts are critical, but they aren’t enough. Children are suffering and dying. The fastest way to stop it is to make sure everyone who is responsible faces consequences.