"Guards are trying to assert total control over detainees, and to demonstrate that there's nothing they can do to protect themselves."
An incident at a Texas Border Patrol detention center in which a prisoner was forced by guards to wear a humiliating sign around his neck is directly reminiscent of abuse that took place in Nazi concentration camps in the 1930s, an expert on the camps said on Friday, and could be the precursor for worse treatment around the corner.
In March, according to CNN, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents forced a Honduran man at the El Paso Processing Center to hold a sign reading "Me gustan los hombre," or, "I like men." CNN shared a photo of the note, which was revealed in emails about the incident obtained by the network.
The incident was reported to higher-ups, but no action was taken.
"The first thing that came to my mind was a man named Hans Beimler who was forced to wear a humiliating sign in 1933, during the first weeks that Dachau was open in Nazi Germany," Andrea Pitzer, the author of "One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps," told Common Dreams in an email.
Pitzer said that the details from CNN's reporting were similar to the Beimler incident, which she documented for her book—and that the disturbing parallels are unlikely to end there as President Donald Trump's war on immigrants continues.
"Whether the abuse is low-grade or rises to actual sexual assault, the point is the same," said Pitzer. "Guards are trying to assert total control over detainees, and to demonstrate that there's nothing they can do to protect themselves."
The CBP agent who reported the incident documented the humiliation and his attempts to reach out his superiors.
According to CNN:
The witnessing agent in the emails names two senior Border Patrol agents and five other agents who also saw the alleged incident occur. The witnessing agent took the note to the senior agent in charge that night but the senior agent took no action, the emails said.
The incident, Boston-based activist Jonathan Cohn said on Twitter, is more evidence that CBP needs to be reigned in.
"Border patrol agents have the maturity and mindset of schoolyard bullies—and far too much power," said Cohn.
The lack of disciplinary action indicated by CNN's reporting hints at a more problematic, systemic reality for those in detention camps. Even the extremely limited ability to seek redress available in the prison system is absent, Pitzer said, because of the unique stateless limbo status of the CBP detainees.
"These kinds of things happen in prisons as well—a fact we need to think seriously about—but the double whammy of the concentration camp system is that the range of legal redress that in theory you have at your disposal in prison (though far too often, it does not work the way it's supposed to) tends not to be available to people in extrajudicial detention," Pitzer said in her email to Common Dreams. "The longer this kind of detention is allowed to go on, the farther the camp system typically moves outside any legal remedy."
Lack of consequences can lead to worse conditions, Pitzer explained, which in turn have historically led to the worst of humanity's impulses being allowed to flourish in the concentration camp system.
"If it turns out that guards aren't held accountable when abuses are reported by their peers, and if authorities show a limited will to intervene," said Pitzer, "that's when the stage will be set to move into the next level of concentration camp abuses, which tend to show up not as negligence but as atrocities."