How Modern US Concentration Camps Work


How Modern US Concentration Camps Work

Genocide and Ethnic cleansing do not happen overnight nor in secret, it is a very public and open process that often takes place after years, and even decades of preparation and normalization before it is carried out. This can be identified early on through public acts of state violence or policies targeting unwanted or undesired groups followed by an increase of racist, misogynistic, or nationalist rhetoric becoming mainstream and widespread throughout a country. The deceptive illusion of safety is a death trap that imperils society’s ability to assure human rights are upheld and impairs democracy. To prevent or halt the spread of these crimes we need to thoroughly comprehend how they came to be and who to hold accountable for these actions.

“Beware of your contribution to the growing banality of evil lest you yourself become a cog in the machinery of terror.”

Heather Marsh, Oxford Union, Whistleblowing Panel, 2018.

The United States currently has a minimum of one refugee concentration camp per state throughout the U.S. mainland. Meanwhile, deportations are reported to have declined while ICE raids nationwide have risen by 40% in 2017. “What our data reveals is a shadowy network of government facilities, subcontractors from the prison-industrial complex, ‘nonprofit’ administrators paid over half a million dollars a year, and religious organizations across the country that, together, prop up the immigrant detention machine. Immigrant detention is a multibillion-dollar business and it’s happening in our own backyards.” researchers at Torn/Apart stated.

Concentration camp (noun): a place in which large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities, sometimes to provide forced labor or to await mass execution. -Oxford English Dictionary

How We Got Here

In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1990 was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush. A reform of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 increased total overall immigration and allowed 700,000 immigrants and refugees to migrate to the U.S. yearly through 1992–1994 and 675,000 per year after that. When signing the bipartisan measure into law, President George H.W. Bush stated that the act “recognizes the fundamental importance and historic contributions of immigrants to our country.”

In 1996, the U.S. Congress in a complete reversal from 1990 passed several laws that curtailed immigrants’ rights signed by President Bill Clinton. These included the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The aggressive 1996 laws passed under then-President Bill Clinton’s administration significantly expanded the number of people including green card holders into being detained and expelled from the United States for minor infractions.

In 2002, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks the George W. Bush Administration restructured 22 federal agencies and 170,000 federal employees into the Department of Homeland Security. This included the Immigration and Naturalization Services, under the Justice Department, and the United States Customs Service, part of the Treasury Department which were fused into Immigration and Customs Enforcement, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, and United States Customs and Border Protection.

In 2003, ICE announced operation Endgame, which publicly set as its goal the 100 percent expulsion of all “removable aliens.” After the creation of DHS and ICE, the budget for immigration enforcement doubled from $6.2 billion in 2002 to $14 billion in 2018. Since the creation of the DHS, the U.S. federal government has spent an estimated $324 billion on immigration enforcement. According to the Detention Watch Network, the “average daily population of detained immigrants increased from approximately 5,000 in 1994, to 19,000 in 2001, and over 39,000 in 2017.”

In 2005, President George W. Bush made it his Administration’s policy to deny the Flores Protections to refugee children traveling with their parents. The Bush administration chose to incarcerate hundreds of families for months at a time at the T. Don Hutto Family Detention Center near Austin, Texas. Legal filings of a federal lawsuit brought against the Bush Administration describe young children forced to wear prison jumpsuits, to live in dormitory housing, to use toilets exposed to public view and to sleep with the lights on, and refused access to appropriate schooling. The George Bush Administration settled the suit with a promise to improve the conditions at Hutto however they continued to deny that children in the family detention were entitled to the Flores Protections. The Hutto concentration camp now holds refugee women and was previously implicated in widespread sexual abuse in 2018.

In 2006, President George W. Bush signed the first federal contracts on the construction and management of U.S. concentration camps. Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, the company formerly run by the US vice-president, Dick Cheney, was given a contract worth up to $385 million for building temporary ‘immigration detention centers’ by The Army Corps of Engineers. Halliburton was previously accused by U.S. federal auditors overcharging the U.S. government by at least $2.7 billion in reconstruction contracts in Iraq and of being aided by connections in obtaining contracts.  The contract with the Corps of Engineers was originally drafted to run for one year, with four optional one-year extensions worth millions. Officials of the corps said that they had solicited bids and that Kellogg Brown & Root was the only company showed to them.

The Willacy County Correctional Center in Raymondville, Texas. (Jenny Jarvie / Los Angeles Times)

In 2008, two major private prison corporations emerged as the main corporate beneficiaries of immigrant detention policies: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) now know as CoreCivic and GEO Group. Between 2008 and 2014, CCA spent $10.5M lobbying on issues related to immigrant detention and immigration reform; $9.7M, 61% of total private prison lobbying expenditures, lobbying directly to the DHS Appropriations Subcommittee. GEO Group was also lobbying on immigration and immigrant detention issues, spending $460,000 between 2011 and 2014.

In 2009, during a growing decline in undocumented immigration, Senator Robert Byrd, then Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security and former high ranking member of the Ku Klux klan; added the following regarding ICE detention budget into the DHS Appropriations Act of 2010: “…funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 33,400 detention beds.” This directive was interpreted by ICE as a mandate to contract for and fill more than 34,000 detention beds daily. The mandate essentially required a U.S. government agency to fulfill a quota in the benefit of private concentration camp operators granted bloated government contracts. Which has further shaped ICE from acting less as law enforcement but more as mercenaries for private industry. However ICE later publically denied that they interpreted this directive as a quota, despite holding at least 40,000 people in concentration camps daily ever since.

In late 2009, President Obama reversed the Bush Administration policy on family detention; abolishing it at Hutto and leaving only a small facility in Pennsylvania to house refugee families in exceptional circumstances. For all other refugee families, the Obama Administration returned to a policy of release to await trial. However, when a surge of refugees from Central America allegedly began, President Obama quickly reinstated the Bush-era policies and announced plans to resume family detention.

In 2013, President Obama’s administration spent nearly $18 billion on immigration enforcement approximately 24 percent higher than collective spending for the Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and Explosives, FBI, and Drug Enforcement Administration. President Obama also increased ICE funding and expanded their presence in communities, terrorizing populations with daily mass raids across the United States, which led to roughly 3 million deportations. The Obama Administration also enhanced ICE’s sweeping powers to surveil violating the privacy of not only immigrant and refugee communities, but US citizens as well as there was no legal oversight provided over surveillance operations.

In 2014, President Obama expanded ICE’s capacity to detain families, which mostly targeted women and children who were rounded up and placed inside private concentration camps pending their asylum cases. Where many of them suffered physical and sexual abuse, torture, and inhumane conditions at hands of private operators, CBP, and ICE agents.  The Obama Administration also granted an unprecedented $1 billion contract to Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which details were not disclosed to the public.

In 2015, after severe media and congressional scrutiny, the Obama Administration released most of the women and children, some of which had been locked up for almost a year. On May 13, 2015, Sally Yates was confirmed as the new Deputy Attorney General of the United States, the second-highest-ranking position in the DOJ. During her confirmation hearing, when questioned by then-Senator Jeff Sessions if she would disobey a president’s unlawful orders she responded that she would have an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution; and to give independent legal advice to the president. Upon entering service, she authored the policy, known as the “Yates memo”, prioritizing the prosecution of executives for corporate crimes.

By August of 2016, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced DOJ plans to end its use of private prisons after officials concluded the facilities are both less safe and less effective than those run by the government. The goal was “reducing and ultimately ending our use of privately operated prisons.” She instructed officials to either decline to renew the contracts for private prison operators when they expire or “substantially reduce” the scope of the contracts.’

In 2016, Corporation of America (CCA) now known as CoreCivic and GEO Group stocks began to collapse after the Sally Yates DOJ announcement. Facing economic uncertainty, despite being paid $20 million a year by the US Government; after the abrupt DOJ decision to no longer uses their services CCA (CoreCivic) and Geo Group both began to pour extravagant amounts of money into lobbying U.S. Presidential candidates the Democrat Hillary Clinton and the Republican Donald Trump. A later lawsuit in 2017, revealed that In August and November 2016, GEO Group, illegally donated a total of $225,000 through a subsidiary to Rebuilding America Now, a pro-Trump super-PAC.

In 2017, upon entering office President Donald Trump fired then-acting attorney general Sally Yates after she defied an illegal travel ban on prominently Muslim countries. Yates was replaced by Dana Boente who only served for a few months before abruptly resigning and was subsequently replaced by Jeff Sessions. Less than two weeks after being sworn in then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions withdrew the Obama-era DOJ memo set by Sally Yates; that set a goal of reducing and ultimately ending the DOJ’s use of corporate private prisons. Coincidently enough at the time, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a stockholder of both CCA (CoreCivic) and Geo Group, who saw their stocks soar due to this action, although some argue that this isn’t subject to conflict of interest.

Systematic Abuse

From the start of the United States misguided and well-funded effort to prevent refugees, undocumented migrants, and other groups from entering or passing through the country. There has been a trail of abuse and horror committed by the involved government agencies and private contractors that continues today.

The abuses committed by the state and its contractors against men, women, and children prominently from Central America and elsewhere seeking refuge and asylum range from: murder, enslavement, deportation or forcible transfer of population; imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty, torture, rape & sexual abuse; and last but not least persecution due to their racial, national, ethnic, or cultural identities. And a series of other inhumane acts that intentionally cause great suffering, or serious injury to body or mental or physical health.

The restriction of medical care, restriction of sanitary utensils, and the widespread use of solitary confinement (torture) are also practices used by U.S. agencies and contractors at concentration camps. Guards place refugees in solitary confinement for arbitrary reasons, such as getting sick, being mentally ill, pushing for proper medical care or speaking to journalists. U.S. federal data from 2013 showed that 300 people were held in solitary confinement daily in 50 of ICE’s detention centers. One victim Ayo Oyakhire, a 50-year-old, man was tortured in solitary for 45 days, gained 20 pounds, and experienced intense psychological terror. When he filed a formal complaint against the abuse, he had been submitted to, ICE declared it was justified and deported him to Nigeria.

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture Juan Méndez has stated that solitary confinement should be banned and that solitary confinement for more than 15 days constitutes inhuman and degrading treatment. According to an ICIJ investigation, it identified 187 cases in which a refugee was held for more than six months. In 32 of those cases, the refugee was confined to solitary for a year or more. ICE refugee death reports found that at least 13 refugees who died in ICE custody had spent time in solitary, in some cases up to the time of death. In eight of those deaths, ICE later determined that rules for putting refugees in isolation and procedures for caring for them were not followed, according to agency documents.

ICIJ Report, ‘Thousands of Immigrants Suffer In US Solitary Confinement ‘, 2019

Some ICE concentration camps such as Adelanto Detention Facility in California, run by the GEO Group, and Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, run by CCA (CoreCivic) practice the crime of enslavement. In a 2017  lawsuit filed against CCA (CoreCivic), the private prison contractor is accused of violating human trafficking laws and employing a deprivation scheme to force refugees held at Stewart to work for cents on the hour. It also threatened to punish them through solitary confinement or by cutting necessities if they refuse to work or encourage others to refuse as well. CCA (CoreCivic)’s and Geo Groups abuse and exploitation of detained refugee and immigrant’ labor as part of its profit-making schemes constitute slavery. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states, “slavery … in all [its] forms shall be prohibited,” and that no one, including detained refugees, immigrants, or prisoners, “shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labor”.

In 2019, it was revealed that roughly 9,500 agents out of the 19,437 existing agents in the agency were part of a secret facebook hate group. The group mocked or promoted refugee and migrant deaths or killings, child abuse, concentration camps, rape, misogyny and hate speech. U.S. Border Patrol chief Carla Provost was also found to be in the group and accused of being a participant. A very small mixed sample of inhumane acts committed by the state, especially against children, are listed below; and compiled by the ACLU in 2018 from firsthand witness accounts collected in official complaints against CBP agents.

  • Stomped on a child
  • Subjected a child to a search in which they “forcefully spread her legs and touched her private parts so hard that she screamed”
  • Hit a child’s head with a flashlight
  • Used a stun gun on a boy, causing him to fall to the ground, shaking, with his eyes rolling back in his head
  • Verbally abused children, calling them dogs and “other ugly things”
  • Lifted a child by the neck and pushed him against a glass structure
  • Kneed a child twice in the stomach
  • Left a 4-pound premature baby and her minor mother in an overcrowded and dirty cell full of sick people, against medical advice.
  • Threw two other minors on top of a child.
  • Denied detained children permission to stand or move freely for days and threatened children who stood up with transfer to solitary confinement (torture) in a small, freezing room.
  • Pulled a child to a standing position by his hair, yelled profanities at the child, and threw the child to the ground, where the side of the child’s face hit a rock.
  • Kicked a child in the ribs.
  • Tased a child, causing him to fall on the ground; Border Patrol agent then kicked child in the back while telling child to get up.
  • Ran over a child with patrol vehicle, and then punched the minor on head and body several times.
  • Threw out a child’s birth certificate and threatened him with sexual abuse by an adult male detainee.
  • Denied a pregnant minor medical attention when she reported pain, which preceded a stillbirth.
Pro Public Report, ‘ Listen to Children Who’ve Just Been Separated From Their Parents at the Border ‘, 2018

In 2008, According to legal filings of a lawsuit against concentration camp contractor, Shiloh Treatment Center, refugee children in U.S. custody are experimented on and subdued with powerful psychiatric drugs. Shiloh Treatment Center is owned and operated by the same entity that previously owned Daystar Treatment Center. Where staff are known to have murdered at least four children, forced developmentally disabled children to fight for snacks, filled with sexual abuse allegations; and was allowed to operate for 17 years.

An investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Texas Tribune found nearly half of the $3.4 billion paid to private contractors dealing with young refugee children in a 4 year span went to those with serious allegations of mistreating children. The drugs given to children rendered them unable to walk, afraid of people and wanting to sleep constantly. The lawsuit reveals how one child was prescribed a cocktail of 10 different medications, including the antipsychotic drugs Latuda, Geodon and Olanzapine, the Parkinson’s medication Benztropine, the seizure medications Clonazepam and Divalproex, the nerve pain medication and antidepressant Duloxetine, and the cognition enhancer Guanfacine. As a result of that lawsuit, ICE agreed to allegedly stop the practice.

In 2017, ICE petitioned to destroy all records of refugee and migrant in-Custody deaths, sexual assault, and other detainee files that may expose the agency to accountability. According CIVIC, there were 14,693 reported incidents of sexual and physical abuse in U.S concentration camps from 2010 to 2016; across all DHS agencies for the same period there was over 33,000 complaints with only 1% of complaints investigated.

In 2019, it was revealed that the U.S. federal government received more than 4,500 complaints of sexual abuse of refugee children held in concentration camps between 2014 and 2018. These crimes increased under the Trump administration’s illegal “zero tolerance” policy, policy, which makes family separation state policy, it should be noted that this is a violation of the United Nations Genocide Convention. Congressman Ted Deutch who released the document said at least 154 claims of sexual assault of refugee children are against facility staff members and that “This works out on average to one sexual assault by HHS staff on an unaccompanied minor per week.” It was noted that allegations did not include HHS staff but private prison contractors “I will make that clarification. It doesn’t make what happened any less horrific,” Congressman Deutch responded. .

Case For Genocide And Crimes Against humanity

On April 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump passed the “zero tolerance” policy targeting refugees and immigrants which drew the ire of human rights activists and groups worldwide. Notably drawing condemnation from the United Nations Rights Chief which stated “The thought that any State would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable,” and issued a call on the United States to immediately put a stop to the policy, and ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Facing international pressure on June 20, 2018, President Trump signed an executive order pretending to end family separations at the U.S. border despite the ‘official end’ of the family separation policy, hundreds of children continue to be illegally separated from their parents and guardians in concentration camps.

On March 2019, the United States government reported to a judge that since that time 300 children had been separated triggering another United Nations condemnation on the treatment of refugees and family separation. On June 2019 in a request for further funding, DHS officials reported that a record 60,000 children had been detained within 40 days. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform reported on July 2019, that over 700 children have been separated from their parents after the policy’s official end. It is estimated that as many as five children are being separated and placed in US refugee concentration camps per day. In August 2019 the ACLU revealed that at least 900 children had been removed from their families, in some cases without clear documentation to track them to reunite them with their parents and families.

Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing, and Mass Murder are all internationally recognized legal concepts that fall under different categories and subsections of international law. The actions and policies implemented by the United States under President Trump’s administration targeting refugees and immigrants are in direct violation of the United Nations Genocide Convention under Article ll in subsections b, c, and e.

Article II 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.


The United States refugee concentration camps and mass deportations are also in direct violation of the principle of non-refoulement under international law, which dictates refugees cannot be denied entry nor returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm. States have a legal obligation to ensure practical and human rights-based protection mechanisms are in place. This principle applies to all migrants and refugees at all times, irrespective of status. The torture, physical abuses, sexual abuses, and excessive detainment time in unsanitary conditions documented by multiple legal and media sources that refugees have experienced inside U.S. concentration camps constitute as Crimes Against Humanity, under Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in subsections c, d, e, f, g, h, i,  k. 

For the purpose of this Statute, “crime against humanity” means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack. 

(a) Murder; (b) Extermination; 

(c) Enslavement; 

(d) Deportation or forcible transfer of population;

(e) Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law; 

(f) Torture; 

(g) Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity; 

(h) Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court; 

(i) Enforced disappearance of persons; 

(j) The crime of apartheid;

(k) Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.


Those responsible for the atrocities committed by the United States under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security and the contractors it employs, in particular, GEO Group and CCA (Core Civic) must be held accountable for the international crimes committed against refugees and migrants over the last three decades. The Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations and other characters involved in government or industry who are implicated in the funding, planning, practice, propaganda, or cover-up of these atrocities need to be subject to an international and national criminal investigation.

In the absence of membership to the International Criminal Court, an alternative must be created that compliments national criminal courts within the United States, as it was done with the Malabo Protocol for example. As for the United Nations, an independent investigative body must be created to record witness and victim testimony and identify the individuals, companies, and networks directly implicated in these atrocities. Those who are found to be implicated in these crimes must be subject to international sanctions, asset recovery, and international arrest warrants.


Their nation is the international intelligence community and the politicians and corporations who can afford to pay them. This is not national security. It is a mafia protection racket available to the highest bidder.

Heather Marsh, Oxford Union, Whistleblowing Panel, 2018.



This article was first published in and written by R researcher and investigative journalist ICIJ on 3 June 2019.


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