Probably the worst thing President Franklin Roosevelt ever did was Executive Order 9066, which ordered the arrest and incarceration of about 120,000 Japanese-Americans, nearly two-thirds of whom were American citizens. The motivation was purest paranoia and racism — holding innocent civilians, most of whose families had lived in the United States for two or three generations, responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
For many years, it was thought this was a historical aberration — an indulgence of the worst human instincts brought on by war fever. President Carter opened an investigation into the story in 1980, and in 1988 President Reagan signed a bill granting reparations of $20,000 to each camp survivor.
But President Trump is following a similar path much further than Roosevelt ever did — indeed, his administration recently announced they would incarcerate 1,400 children at an Oklahoma army base that was part of the Second World War camp system. Trump's immigrant gulag is already one of the greatest moral atrocities in American history, and there is every sign it is going to get worse if he isn't stopped.
By all accounts, the conditions in the Trump immigrant gulag are considerably worse than those suffered by Japanese-Americans from 1942-45. Conditions in those concentration camps during the war varied, and they were generally quite poor. Nevertheless, the camps had at least half-decent food and medical care. There was no deliberate mass starvation, nor mass executions. Schools were provided for children (poorly-equipped ones, but better than nothing), and some facilities even had sports teams (to relieve the crushing boredom, if nothing else). Families were mostly kept together.
The Trump gulag is badly lacking even these inadequate, rudimentary services. As Jonathan M. Katz writes in the Los Angeles Times, at least 48,000 people are currently incarcerated, a number that is increasing fast as a direct consequence of Trump's decision to drastically step up arrests. As a recent inspector general report details, facilities are hideously overcrowded and filthy, with people jammed into dog kennel-like cages and forced to sleep on the ground outside. Ken Klippenstein uncovered internal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) documents outlining how its health care is "severely dysfunctional and unfortunately preventable harm and death to detainees has occurred." Many people, including several children, have died from medical neglect. Thousands of minors have complained of sexual assault and abuse while being detained over the past several years, including 178 accusations against U.S. staffers — and the rate has sharply increased since Trump took office.
Recently the administration announced it would make things even worse, by defunding "education services, legal services, and recreation."
Perhaps worst of all, thousands of immigrant children have been separated from their families. Under Trump's "zero tolerance" policy starting in May 2018, over 2,800 immigrant children were ripped from their parents' arms and stuffed into their own pint-size concentration camps with little concern for keeping track of which child belonged with which family. A court forced Trump to halt that policy as of June 2018, but in May the administration announced it had discovered a further 1,712 children it "may have" separated from their families in addition to the above figure. (Like everything about the Trump regime, the camp logistics are appallingly incompetent.)
To be clear, all this is in no way making excuses for Roosevelt's odious concentration camps. What he did was a gruesome crime. Housing there was badly overcrowded, jobs and higher education were interrupted, and victims feared for their lives. At least seven people were shot to death by camp guards, one while trying to escape after being driven to desperate panic over the prospect of being deported to Japan, where he would have been immediately arrested. To this day camp survivors report lingering psychological damage.
But Trump's gulag is worse. As one elderly survivor who has visited ICE camps told author Bradford Pearson, "It's worse than anything we ever experienced."
What accounts for this difference? Two factors: racism and incompetence. Many of Roosevelt's advisers were disturbed by the concentration camps, and worked in some way to partly alleviate the harms. His powerful Interior Secretary Harold Ickes wrote FDR in 1943 that the situation in some of the camps was "bad and is becoming worse rapidly," and the "result has been the gradual turning of thousands of well-meaning and loyal Japanese into angry prisoners." This kind of pressure helped mobilize the highly efficient Roosevelt administration into providing at least meager accommodations. Similarly, President Obama had his own terrible history of immigrant abuse, including using the same site to house detained migrants, but was somewhat restrained compared to Trump.
As The Atlantic's Franklin Foer writes, ICE is full of virulently racist idiots, many of whom washed out of or were rejected by other law enforcement agencies. The election of Trump profoundly radicalized the agency, unleashing its worst impulses and slotting it into a conservative political strategy of clinging to power by keeping America as white as possible — both by violently oppressing potential refugees, and cooking up pretexts to deport as many current black or brown immigrants as possible.
So on the one hand, we have an agency full of people who can indulge their deep desires to inflict gratuitous cruelty on helpless people to their heart's content, while on the other it is basically incapable of operating a humane detention system even if it wanted to, which it doesn't. Indeed, there is no need for these camps in the first place. People applying for refugee status (which is legal under U.S. law) could simply be released while they wait to be processed, and all the money being wasted on immigrant abuse could be dedicated towards speeding up the paperwork process.
But as Adam Serwer put it, the cruelty is the point. Trump's gulag can get much, much worse if he isn't stopped.
Editor's note: This article incorrectly characterized Japanese-Americans' attempts to escape Roosevelt's camps. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.