Detention Centers are Part of America’s Dark History by George Cassidy Payne

As much as I am personally sickened by President Trump’s handling of the border crisis, historically speaking, his draconian policies are far from unprecedented. Shamefully, confining a specific ethnic group in detention centers appears to be as American as eating a hot dog at a baseball game on the 4th of July.

dete01_400The first substantial U.S. detention program began in 1838 under the auspices of President Martin Van Buren, who ordered the U.S. Army to enforce the Treaty of New Echota (essentially an Indian removal treaty). Marshaling the manpower of over 7,000 soldiers, General Winfield Scott was charged with evicting the Cherokee nation from their tribal lands in the south and forcing them to trek 1,200 miles west to reservations in Oklahoma. Before the men, women, and children were sent on the “Trail of Tears”, they were detained in six detention centers called “emigration depots.” These forts existed in North Carolina, as well as Chattanooga, Tennessee and Fort Payne, Alabama.

During the American Civil War, thousands of freed slaves from the plantations were recaptured by the Union army and put into hard labor camps. Women and children were locked away in these camps and left to die from starvation and smallpox. According to some researchers, over 20,000 emancipated slaves were killed in these makeshift concentration camps. (The most infamous of these was established in Natchez, Mississippi and was called the Devil’s Punchbowl because it was located at the bottom of a cavernous pit with trees located on the bluffs above.)

Nearly a half-century later, at the apex of the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson, fearing the subversive potential of Germans and German Americans, set up two internment camps in Hot Springs, N.C., and Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. Codifying the president’s fears, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer decreed that “All aliens interned by the government are regarded as enemies, and their property is treated accordingly.”

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, this official policy of exclusion was expanded to target Japanese and Americans of Japanese descent. Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which allowed the military to designate areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded.” The groundwork for this Executive Order was firmly planted when the 1940 census introduced a new question. It required that all respondents include their ethnicity. Also in 1940, a new law was passed so that all aliens over the age of 14 had to be registered.

These extreme measures were followed by perhaps the single most unconstitutional order ever delivered in our nation’s history, namely, the Emergency Detention Act of 1950. Otherwise known as the McCarran Internal  Security Act, this provision authorized the construction of six concentration camps in 1952 in the event that the U.S. government declare a state of emergency. Rather than Indians, Germans, and the Japanese, these camps were intended to hold communists, anti-war activists, and other dissidents. Among other disturbing components, the Act required that the President, in an emergency, assume the right to arrest and detain persons who he believed might engage in espionage or sabotage. It also created a Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB) to effectively monitor the finances and activities of millions of Americans.

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