Rhetoric on the Border

Incoming Democratic-Socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York and Senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are having a debate over whether there is any comparison between the disturbing events on the U.S.-Mexico border and the horrors of the Holocaust.

Ocasio-Cortez apparently thinks there is. Graham says there isn’t, and the Holocaust should not be brought into the highly charged question of how to handle the migrant problem.

The occasion for their debate was the scene of hundreds of asylum seekers being tear-gassed by U.S. border agents as they attempted to rush across the border. The images of women and children in distress outraged critics of the Trump administration’s immigration policy, of whom Ocasio-Cortez is one.

To be fair, she did not directly compare the border incident to Nazi crimes.

What she said was that seeking asylum “isn’t a crime … It wasn’t for Jewish families fleeing Germany. It wasn’t for targeted families fleeing Rwanda. It wasn’t for communities fleeing war-torn Syria.”

Her point was that sympathy for refugees in those terrible events should be extended to the families trying to gain entry into the United States. Just as we would have wanted America to open its borders to the Jewish refugees then (which President Roosevelt refused to do), we should demand that the United States do so now.

Although Ocasio-Cortez did not say so explicitly, she does imply that there is a comparison to be made between their plight and that of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust; that their asylum-seeking is like the Jews’ flight from Germany.

But it patently isn’t. The Jews of Nazi Europe were seeking to flee annihilation; the people south of the border are fleeing poverty. The former were fleeing to save their lives; the latter are seeking a better life. Being tear-gassed is a most unpleasant thing, but it’s not a gas chamber.

Moreover, this was not the first use of the Holocaust in reference to Latin American migrants. Earlier this year, the facilities set up to hold the children at the border were called “concentration camps.” ICE officials have been branded “Nazis,” and President Donald Trump and others in the administration have been vilified as “Hitler.”

Thus, the remark fits in with an attempt to exploit the memory of the Six Million for political advantage. It defiles that sacred memory and obscures the actual issues involved, such as in the case of the asylum-seekers.

In his rebuke, Sen. Graham wrote: “I recommend she take a tour of the Holocaust Museum in DC. Might help her better understand the differences between the Holocaust and the caravan in Tijuana.”

Ocasio-Cortez answered back that “the point of such a treasured museum is to bring its lessons to present day. This administration has jailed children and violated human rights. Perhaps we should stop pretending that authoritarianism+violence is a historical event instead of a growing force.”

She rejects the insinuation that she is in need of education about the Holocaust, which would dispel such comparisons. Perhaps she has indeed been to that museum (she didn’t say she had) or has studied the history in other ways. But her glib invocation of Holocaust refugees is aimed at an American public who are shockingly ignorant, and who are susceptible to false comparisons.

A survey commissioned by the Claims Conference this year found that 10 percent of American adults were not sure they’d ever heard of the Holocaust; among millenials it was one in five. Half of all millennials could not name a single concentration camp, and 45 percent of all American adults failed to do so.

For many people, the Holocaust represents something vaguely very bad that happened a long time ago — if that. They are a receptive audience to the Holocaust-smear rhetoric, having little or no conception of what transpired in World War II.

As Sen. Graham also pointed out at some length, the comparison distracts attention from the real issue, that of finding a viable solution to the persistent problem of how to respond fairly but effectively to massive illegal immigration. False, inflammatory rhetoric will not contribute to that end.

While we can certainly sympathize with families who are desperate to escape the miserable conditions in their home countries, this cannot be the sole determinant of policy.

Graham suggested no fewer that nine points to ponder about the crisis.

Among them was that the “current chaos at our southern border must be dealt with properly, or we will never find a solution to our broken immigration system,” noting that he has worked for years at trying to fix that system.

“Americans want an immigration policy which we control, not one where illegal immigrants control us,” Graham tweeted.

It may not appeal as well to the emotions, but it does make a lot of sense.