That Debacle at the Border is Genocide

Prepared text for at talk at Cornbread and Beans, Norman, Oklahoma. (August 9, 2019.)

I’m grateful for the invitation to speak to you. I’m a Democrat and the child of Democrats, and lately, I’d vote for the yellow dog. I believe that what I’m going to talk about today is central to our mission and values as Democrats.

I’m going to explain the genocidal nature of the situation at the border and how I know that those are concentration camps. But first, I’m going to summarize the history of the situation. I’ll conclude by warning that things at the border are worse than you think.

I. Yo Tom Cole!

I’m a scholar of American Indian history and culture. One of my specialties is the study of indigenous peoples globally. Many of the people of Central America are indigenous—American Indians like the tribes around here. Nation-states all tend to apply very similar policies to indigenous peoples, so my Seminole people are dealing with much the same US policies as Maori are fielding vis-à-vis New Zealand and San Bushmen, vis-a-vis Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. Therefore, international legal standards are useful for protecting indigenous peoples and their ways of life.

So I’m pretty well acquainted with the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948). The UN adopted it after World War II in an effort to prevent future episodes like the Holocaust. The Convention includes a definition of genocide, so I had that definition in mind when I started seeing journalists’ reports that the Department of Homeland Security was seizing Central American migrant children from their families and putting them in concentration camps at the southern border.

As soon as I spotted the last piece of information that made it clear to me that the policy is genocidal, I realized that my ranting about it on Facebook wasn’t going to be enough, and I’d have to do something to call wider attention to what’s going on at the border. So I picked out the nearest office of a federal, Republican elected official—that was Representative Tom Cole’s local office—and I announced to my friends that I’d be conducting my own solitary vigil there. I named my project Yo Tom Cole!

My private vigil lasted only one day, because I invited a MoveOn demonstration to join me there on the second day. It drew more than 70 people to Tom Cole’s office. Sixty-six of them signed his register, others couldn’t shove their way through the standing room only crowd to reach the register, and others never left the sidewalk. So more than 70 people participated, and I’m letting Tom Cole and his staff wonder whether I can muster 70 people whenever I want to.

Some of the demonstrators decided to keep up a weekly vigil. About ten people have been showing up on Tuesdays at 1:00. We sit on the sidewalk outside the building, where there’s no traffic and nobody can see us. We each go upstairs to the office in turn to engage the office staff about immigration policy. And then we plaster social media with images of our activity.

So my vigil has been good for me and some other vigilers, but we’re not really helping any of the suffering innocents at the border. We’re not ruffling the staff the way we need to, and Tom Cole is not feeling any heat from us, so we’ve started looking for other ideas. In Nebraska, they’re picketing the churches of Republican elected officials, so we’re eyeing Tom Cole’s Methodist church in Moore. And we’ll be at his town hall on the 19th at the Weather Center.

Here’s a tablet where you can leave your name and email address if you’d like to be on the mailing list for the vigil. And on the slide is the name of the Facebook page that I started to let my friends know about my little solitary vigil, which is no longer just mine. Do please friend it if you’d like to keep up with this project on Facebook.

II. US Interventions in Central American Nations Caused the Present Large-Scale Migration

The genocide at the border is a response to an unprecedented migration of people from Central America. It began with American interventions in Central American governments during the 1970s and 1980s, the closing years of the Cold War. Socialist reform movements were gaining influence in that region, and US officials were thinking in Cold War terms: freedom-loving capitalists versus totalitarian communists. So they sent in military and CIA agents to steer the Central American nations away from the Soviet bloc and keep them as US satellites. During that episode, the US overturned some legitimately elected Central American governments and installed puppet governments headed by dictators.

The nations most affected were Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. The coups d’etat uprooted hundreds of thousands of people and caused a huge immigration from Central America to the US in the 1980s. For those who remained in those nations, the legacy of that period includes political upheaval, economic depression, unemployment, low wages, political violence, and a fantastically high rate of homicide.

In Guatemala, the United Fruit Company, a US company, was extracting much of the nation’s wealth to benefit the company’s shareholders. The Company owned the railroad infrastructure, an entire port, and most of the good farmland. A small class of Guatemalan elites enabled the extraction. That left a huge class of very poor, landless people, mostly Mayan speaking Indians.

In 1954, the elected Guatemalan government passed a land reform law, which would have forced the Company to sell its land to the Guatemalan government for redistribution. The US backed a coup[1] that overthrew the legitimate government and installed an unpopular dictator.[2] He provoked a rebellion and then conducted a retaliatory genocide that went on for decades, through a series of right-wing dictators. By the end of that period in 1996, more than 200,000 Guatemalans had died, mostly indigenous people. Throughout that period, the US was training the Guatemalan military in methods of terrorism, including torture and scorched earth tactics. So American activity there has caused a huge out-migration that is still going on.

In El Salvador, the US backed a military government that deployed death squads and carried out massacres. US military and CIA organized, trained, and funded much of that activity. Reagan’s administration gave $5 or $6 billion to support it.

In Nicaragua in the late 1970s, a reformist group known as Sandanistas overthrew a dictatorship. The US backed the dictator, and when he went down, they backed the opposition to the Sandanista government, a group called the Contras. To fund the Contras, Reagan’s officials smuggled guns to Iran to get money. So that was the Iran-Contra scandal. Nicaragua is an anomoly, because they have managed to maintain a stable government with little out-migration.

Honduras remained loyal to the US, so Reagan’s administration developed Honduras as a base from which the Contras attacked Nicaragua’s Sandanista government. In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped overthrow the duly elected President Manuel Zelaya after he introduced social reforms. The Honduran people arose in mass nonviolent protest demonstrations, and Clinton helped block Zelaya’s return to power. Since then, the murder rate has increased by 53%, much of it political repression. By 2012, Honduras had the highest murder rate in the world, according to the UN. An estimated one million Hondurans have fled the situation there; keep them in mind: we’ll get back to them.

Meanwhile, in 1971, Nixon’s administration declared War on Drugs. Since then, the US has forced drug cartels out of Columbia and Mexico, and the cartels have gone to Central America. Gang violence took root in Central American countries as an overlay of the political violence that the US had already caused there. Groups such as the Contras that formed to oppose reformist movements are now linked into the local drug gangs.

MS-13 looms large in the Mind of America. It’s a California gang that the US has deported to Central America. It’s less important than the Central American home-grown gangs, except as a stalking horse for Trump.

So the violence of the drug-trade on top of the violence of political repression is one cause of today’s heavy migration from Central America. It’s the stereotype, but it’s only part of the explanation. Another cause is the high unemployment and low wages since the US stirred up those governments and messed up their economies. A third cause is the free trade-agreements that have driven an estimated 2 million people off their lands by making small farmers compete with huge agribusinesses. But most important for the future is a fourth cause of the huge migration: Farmers are leaving their homes because their environmental niche has collapsed. Their farms are failing, or natural disasters are driving them off their land. They’re like the Dustbowl refugees. They’re called “climate refugees.”

The climate problem is worst in an area called the Dry Corridor that extends from southern Mexico to Panama. Climate change has caused a 10-year drought, water shortages, hurricanes, floods, mudslides, and a rising sea level; and those conditions will only intensify as the climate worsens. Says one specialist, “It’s going to be without precedent in human history.” The US bears great responsibility for this crisis as the greatest green-house gas polluter in this hemisphere and the second greatest in the world after China.

Climate refugees have no legal status in either international law or laws of nations.[3] Therefore, when migrants ask for asylum, they have to give other reasons, which are already recognized in legal codes. Presumably, many asylum seekers who may cite violence in their home countries are really like Dustbowl refugees who would starve if they stayed on their farms.

So the US bears enormous responsibility for political oppression and economic disfunction in the migrants’ countries. It is the biggest contributor to the destruction of their environmental niches. Therefore, we have a huge share of the responsibility to take care of those refugees that our policies have created.

III. The Trump Administration Has Converted US Immigration Policy into a Policy of Genocide

Some Americans hate or fear migrants and blame problems on the migration. Trump uses those beliefs to prop up his popularity. And to do that, he’s been converting US immigration policy to a policy of genocide. I’m going to tell you about Trump’s immigration policy, and then I’ll show how it matches up with the definition of genocide.

Before Trump got in, US immigration policy was already unconscionable. The US doesn’t want to concede that the right-wing dictatorships that it supports create political refugees, so the US refuses to let most of them in. For example, Clinton’s State Department refused to admit those million Hondurans whom she helped turn into refugees. So Trump has taken that bad situation and turned it into an atrocity.

The official turn toward genocide came on April 6, 2018, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance policy” of prosecuting everybody caught entering the US illegally. Previous practice had been to deport most of them without prosecution. Two weeks later, journalists were reporting that when undocumented immigrants were taken into custody, US officials were taking their children from them. Nearly 3000 children were taken from their families between April 6 and June 20, 2018, when Trump issued an executive order ending “family separation,” but not zero tolerance.

The Trump administration claims that seizing children is a necessary consequence of the zero tolerance policy—they can’t stay with parents who are being prosecuted. Let’s test that claim. Much hinges on the fact that the courts cannot possibly process everyone caught entering the country illegally.

+ Human Rights Watch reports that children have been taken from adults who were not prosecuted.

+ Reuters reports that Homeland Security was considering separating children as early as March 2017, 13 months before the zero tolerance policy.

+ The New York Times reports that Trump’s Administration began seizing children in October 2017, six months before zero tolerance.

+ And the kicker: not all of the separated families had crossed illegally. Illegal entry is a federal misdemeanor, and illegal re-entry is a federal felony.[4] Simply showing up at the border and asking for asylum is not against the law. Many of the people in the concentration camps are not “illegal” immigrants.

So taking children is not tied to prosecuting adults. The other rationale that US officials cite is that the well-being of the child dictates removing them from the family’s custody. We can test that rationale against data provided by the Department of Justice to the Federal District Court of San Diego, which is overseeing the case against the child separation policy.

From June 20, 2018, when the policy was rescinded, to July 30, 2018, 911 children were separated from their families, allegedly because the parents were a danger to their children or could not take care of them, or the adults with children were not really the parents. In one case, a father allowed his feverish daughter to continue sleeping in his arms rather than wake her to change her wet diaper; he had no criminal history. Other cases involve traffic violations, drunk driving, drug possession, a misdemeanor assault from 20 years ago, malicious destruction of $5 worth of property, shoplifting, driving without a license, and unsubstantiated allegations. The children were in shelters for an average of 68 days; 4 of them for more than 300 days. Of the 911 children, 481 were under age 10, and 185 were under age 6.

Surely nobody in this room has missed the reports of abuses of children in Border Patrol detention, so I am not describing it here. Suffice to say that the child separation policy is not a necessary consequence of prosecuting adults and is not designed to protect children. It’s a policy designed to inflict pain on children and the people who love them. Administration officials have said that it’s intended to deter migration, but I think it is intended to satisfy sadistic, racist, mysogynistic, and xenophobic urges and to court political support from sadists, racists, mysogynists, and xenophobes. I also suspect some underlying pedophilic motive.

IV. American Taboos

We have a taboo against talking about concentration camps and genocide at the hands of the US government, even though we also uphold the principle that we’re free to do it. We need to be using those terms anyway. If time permitted today, I’d also be talking about torture.

Concentration Camps

I take concentration camps personally, because the US herded my Seminole and Muscogee forebears into concentration camps in Florida and Alabama in the 1830s in preparation for a forced migration to this area, where we were dumped into refugee camps and fed moldy food. So my family culture has prepared me to ignore the taboos against speaking analytically about the US government.

When I talk about concentration camps, I do it with reference to a specific definition. You can find other definitions, but here’s mine.[5] It has all the most frequently mentioned elements. A concentration camp is

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 confined without trial under armed guard.

Most of the definitions also end with an acknowledgment of the Nazi Holocaust, making clear that the Nazi case is not a necessary element of the definition. (So why is it in there at all?)

The migrant camps that our taxes are paying for are places, they confine large numbers of people, the people are refugees and also members of a distinct ethnic group, they are confined without trial, and they are under armed guard. It’s all there. Those are concentration camps.


When I speak of genocide, I’m referring to the UN’s definition in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. It was adopted in 1948 after World War II, intended to prevent future episodes like the Holocaust. A Polish Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin led the campaign for the Convention and coined the word genocide.

The US signed it in 1948 but did not ratify it until 1986. Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wisc), he of the Golden Fleece Award, spoke for ratification before the Senate every day that the Senate was in session from 1967 to 1986.

The Convention on Genocide has rarely been used. Cases have been prosecuted regarding the Bosnian ethnic cleansing of 1992,[6] the Rwandan genocide of 1994,[7] and the Srebrenica Massacre of Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serb military forces in 1995.[8] The International Criminal Court is investigating the case of Darfur, Sudan, 2003 to the present.

Here’s the definition of genocide:

Article 2

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Note the reference to “intent.” That makes proving genocide extremely difficult.

Note “in whole or in part.” You don’t have to try to destroy every member of a targeted group. Intending to destroy part of it constitutes genocide.

Regarding section (a), 24 people have died in ICE custody under Trump compared with 18 under Obama. The number of deaths of children who have died in custody of other agencies since September is 6.[9] We’re seeing no governmental coordination in these deaths, but individuals can commit genocide on their own initiative, as encoded in article 4:

Persons committing genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in Article 3 shall be punished, whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.

I suspect a genocidal pattern on the part of some ICE and Border Patrol officers, but proving it is probably impossible.

Section (b) recognizes serious mental harm as a type of genocide. I’ve seen dozens of recent articles on the harmful effects—both mental and physical—to children of separating them from their parents under the present conditions. If you have children, you may agree that the effects on parents can also constitute serious mental harm.

NBC News reports that children at the Yuma, Arizona, camp have reported sexual assault and sexual harrassment. That’s serious mental harm.

Yahoo News reports that Border Patrol personnel have been seizing people’s prescription medicines and not returning or replacing them. Medicines included insulin, seizure medicines, and blood pressure medicines. I’ve seen no reports on resulting harm to people, but let’s keep this in mind in relation to “serious bodily harm.”

Section (e) states that the forced transfer of children from a targeted group to another group is a form of genocide. The seizure and incarceration of migrant children is a case of that. Although some of the children are being restored to their families, many other cases have not ended so well.

By June 20, 2018, when the child separation policy was rescinded, the Trump administration had no system for reuniting children with their families. A former acting director of ICE[10] said, “I think we’re going to see hundreds of cases” in which children will never be reunited with their families. That would be genocide.

Of the 3000 or so children who were taken from their families from April 6 to June 20, 2018, 81 were given into foster care by one of the largest adoption agencies in the US. Bethany Christian Services denies that they intend to put the children up for adoption, but they also waived their international adoption application fee when they received the children. The international adoption industry has been shrinking, and American couples seeking to adopt are having trouble finding children. By June 20, Laura Ingraham on FOX News was calling on the government to make adoption of those migrant children easier for US citizens.

A federal law, the Adoption and Safe Families Act (1997), provides that—not counting cases where the child is with relatives—when a child has been in foster care for 15 out of 22 consecutive months, child welfare agencies must stop trying to restore the child to their parents and instead must seek to terminate parental rights and make the child available for adoption. Migrant parents in concentration camps may not be able to reclaim their children in time and cannot participate in court proceedings relating to termination of their rights. Combined, the zero tolerance policy and the Adoption and Safe Families Act amount to a formal national policy of genocide.

V. The Big Picture

Are you thinking that we’ll elect a Democrat next year, and the new administration will make the concentration camps go away, and we’ll all get back to normal? That’s not likely. We may never be able to uproot a concentration camp system once it gets settled into the government.

Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, warns that a system of concentration camps goes through an initial phase of about 3 or 4 years during which it sometimes can be shut down, but after that it’s nearly unstoppable. It becomes like bindweed with roots extending throughout the society.

People who own stock in private migrant concentration camps are getting rich from this genocide. Companies are getting contracts to provide supplies; so shareholders are profiting. Many people have jobs in the camps and the supply companies. Adoption agencies have found a new supply of warm bodies to sell to eager childless couples. Pedophile rings are picking off the slow and the weak from that same population of kids. There seems to be a lot of money in pedophilia, judging fro Jeffrey Epstein’s wealth. Towns with concentration camps would lose jobs if the camps closed. Their tax bases would suffer. Their businesses would suffer. Their residents would not vote for a Congress member who voted to close the camps. The people who are profiting from the camps give money to elected officials and tell them not to close the camps. In July of last year, the annual cost of incarcerating only the children was nearly $1 billion.[11]

Consider that Obama tried and failed to close Guantanamo. It’s nearly impossible to close a system of concentration camps after it takes root. Pitzer says that only an outside power like another nation stops it then. And what power is strong enough to force the US to weed out a component institution? It’s even worse than that. Torture takes root in a system of concentration camps and progresses toward killing. Climate migration is only going to intensify, and we’re facing a dystopian future of haves, have nots, and a huge, ever growing population of unfree humans—or something worse. By a generous estimate, we have about three years to prevent that.

Susan Miller is a scholar of American Indian history and culture.


1) President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had been legal counsel to United Fruit Company for a long time, and now he led the US in backing the coup.

2) Carlos Castillo Armas

3) Todd Miller, Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security. As of this writing, New Zealand was considering a bill to recognize climate refugees.

4) You can get as much as twenty years for that if you have an “aggravating felony.” A zero tolerance policy called Operation Streamline had been on the books since 2005, but people with children were seldom prosecuted. Most prosecutions were of people with records of serious crimes or people who had reentered after being deported. The Trump-Sessions policy introduced the targeting for prosecution of people who come with children. Its damage is compounded by new obstacles to legal asylum. And Trump’s administration is prosecuting people for merely seeking asylum, which is said to be an iffy proposition under international law.

5) I have combined definitions by Merriam-Webster and Andrea Pitzer.

6) In 2007, a tribunal found genocide in the 1992 Bosnian ethnic cleansing campaign. There have been no convictions in that case, but it appears that intent is still being adjudicated (Bosnia and Hertzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro, 2007).

7) The first prosecution under its terms was in 1998, when a former mayor of a town in Rwanda and the prime minister of Rwanda’s caretaker government were found guilty.

8) Serbia is accused of breaking the law by failing to prevent the massacre and some other violations.

9) That’s according to an excellent article on concentration camps in Esquire, June 13, 2019.

10) John Sandweg, Obama’s acting director of ICE,

11) Ashley Curtin, “Detaining Immigrant Children—A Billion Dollar Industry,” Nation of Change, July 14, 2018.