In June 2019, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described Donald Trump’s detention centers, especially those holding separated children, as concentration camps. Her accusation created a controversy in the media over the use of the term “concentration camps” to describe immigration detention centers. Some pundits argued that the use of the term was an exaggeration that drew an equivalence between migrant detention centers and Nazi concentration camps and the holocaust. Activists and scholars have countered that concentration camps had a long history of use around the world that included: Native American wars, the Philippine-American War, and the Boar War among many uses. Into this conversation steps Jessica Ordaz and her timely new book, The Shadow of El Centro. Ordaz, assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, deftly shows the extent to which detention, control, and violence have come to dominate America’s response to undocumented immigration through a history of one of America’s oldest detention facilities, El Centro, in the city of El Centro in the Imperial Valley of California.
The El Centro Immigration Detention Center operated from 1945 to 2014, encompassing seven decades of changes in the way the U.S. detains undocumented migrants, not for the better. Ordaz shows just how different notions of what is “normal” operated across most of the twentieth century and twenty first century. She follows the detention of German merchants taken during World War II who were allowed incredible freedoms by later standards. That facility came to house Japanese detainees and after the war, under the INS, became El Centro. Ordaz makes it clear that the primary difference in how people were seen and treated was race; placing the detention of people of color in the long history of settler colonialism, conquest, slavery, and forced labor. In this context the term concentration camp was used casually at the time to describe various forced camps in the 19th and early 20th century, including WWII camps. The name of camps’ location itself carries these historical echoes; the Imperial Valley of California was named for the agricultural company that promoted literal colonial imperialism and dispossession from the local native people.
The way El Centro’s officials detained Mexicans and Central Americans reflected and created racialized hierarchies. Just as white farmers viewed Mexicans as racially fit to stoop labor, so did INS officials who saw no issue with forcing detainees to labor in hundred plus degree heat. The forced labor system that the INS ran for decades is then one of the central components of control over the agricultural labor economy of the Imperial Valley, along with its sibling, the bracero processing center, and ports of entry. Migrants are seen as dangerous and criminal, subject to control by all these entities. Their bodies are seen as potential vectors of disease, so they are stripped and doused with dangerous chemicals. As the story moves from the 1940s to the 1970s and 1980s, migrants, especially Central Americans, come to be seen as potential subversives in the Cold War, subject to imprisonment and removal from the country.
The book uses the metaphor of haunting to think about how the past keeps on shaping the present. Ordaz answers Giorgio Agamben’s call to “investigate carefully the juridical procedures and deployments of power by which human beings could be so completely deprived of rights and prerogatives that no act committed against them could appear any longer a crime.” As Ordaz reminds readers, migrants in these camps are “detainees” not prisoners, the camps are “detention centers” not prisons. El Centro was never a prison in the legal sense. This is because the inmates have not been convicted of anything, they are usually not even facing criminal prosecution. Violating immigration law is an administrative offense, not a criminal one. However, they are treated as if they are inherently criminal, with all the trappings of the industrial prison complex. They are subject to forced labor, arbitrary rules like a requirement to wear hats at all times, a lack of rights, solitary confinement, and a shocking degree of routine violence. The legal fiction of administrative law places much of the migration detention and deportation system beyond the reach of judicial review, meaning that migrants do not have the constitutional protections criminal defendants have.
Yet, from inside of El Centro and similar facilities, migrants have found ways to resist their circumstances. Unlike many scholars who focus on migrant policies, legislation, and law, Ordaz looks at how these policies worked on the ground. She shows a culture of abuse, where racialized violence is rendered normal. Guards beat migrants with impunity and cease to see them as fellow humans. In response migrants find ways to resist, by escaping, sometimes across the nearby border into Mexico. In the 1970s Mexican activists protested conditions and sought asylum. In 1985 a group of Central Americans staged the largest hunger strike in El Centro’s history and filed a series of lawsuits. The lawsuits Ordaz explores provide a counterpoint to INS manuals and reports in illustrating individual stories of abuse and death and attempts to push back.
While immigration ports of entry like Ellis Island are accorded a large place in public imagination, commemoration, and scholarship, places of detention like El Centro are largely unknown. Angel Island occupies something of a middle ground, a port of entry that was also a detention center, mostly of Asians, for which there is increasing public awareness. Most detention centers on the other hand are anonymous, places on rural landscapes far from urban centers, not known outside their local communities. Few exist beyond a decade or two, which makes the story of El Centro unique. The El Centro Immigration Detention Center and the stories of those who resisted detention deserve to be better known and memorialized in the landscape.
At El Centro, the use of forced labor, regularized violence, and solitary confinement on civilians who have not been convicted of anything were so normalized the guards did not call them into question. And the law provided impunity. The way the law was structured made it nearly impossible to hold people and institutions accountable, giving license to abuse. Ordaz argues that this was not an anomaly, but central to how detention and deportation function in America. This is what activists in the 1940s, 1960s, 1980s, and today were calling attention to by deploying the term ‘concentration camp.’ Ordaz is part of the wave of scholarship that criticizes the prison industrial complex, the migration detention system, and the racialization of Latin American migrants in the United States. She builds on them by showing what these policies engender in facilities and on too many migrant lives. Ultimately, her account asks us: would it not be better if all detention centers were abolished?
Daniel Morales is an assistant professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University specializing in Latinx history, immigration, and public history. He is from Azusa California and earned his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University in 2016, and B.A. at the University of Chicago in 2008. His research focuses on the social and economic history of migration between Latin America and the United States. His upcoming book Entre Aquí y Allá: The Political Economy of Transnational Mexican Migration, examines the creation of transnational migratory networks across Mexico and the United States in the twentieth century.