- A Houston-based construction firm with ties to the White House has been awarded an open-ended contract to build immigration detention centers that could total $385 million, a move some critics called questionable.
The contract calls for KBR, a subsidiary of oil engineering and construction giant Halliburton, to build temporary detention facilities in the event of an "immigration emergency," according to U.S. officials.
"If, for example, there were some sort of upheaval in another country that would cause mass migration, that's the type of situation that this contract would address," said Jamie Zuieback of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"Essentially, this is a contingency contract."
The concern raised in the story, though, is more over who got the contract and its nature:
- The open-ended nature of the contract raises concerns about overcharging and other potential abuse, said Charlie Cray, director of the Washington-based Center for Corporate Policy and a frequent Halliburton critic.
Which is fair enough: It does have the reek of corrupt cronyism that is the hallmark of the Bush administration:
- There's no guarantee that any work will be performed under the contract; if no immigration emergency or natural disaster occurs, there won't be anything for KBR to do, said company spokeswoman Cathy Mann.
But the bigger question went unasked: What the hell is the government doing building mass detention centers?
Columnist Tom Hennessy asked just this question a few days later:
- That sounds a tad fuzzy, but let's concede that the camps do have something to do with immigration, illegal or not. In fact, there already are thousands of beds in place at various U.S. locations for the purpose of housing illegal immigrants.
But for anyone familiar with history -- U.S. or European -- the construction of detention camps for whatever purpose should prompt a chilling scenario.
The new detention camps will be built by Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), a subsidiary of Halliburton. The latter, as you likely know, is the defense-related corporate giant with fists full of contracts involving the war in Iraq.
... KBR, in fact, had the $9.7 million contract to build the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. This facility, popularly dubbed "Gitmo," holds 660 prisoners classified by the government as "enemy combatants."
This column is written with the distinct feeling that not many people will give a hoot about any or all of this. But as already noted, a news story about construction of government detention centers should give us all pause.
Considering what took place in Nazi Germany, as well as the shameful incarceration of Japanese-Americans in 1942, no detention camp should be built without the widest possible public scrutiny.
Bottom line: The contract cries out for greater attention. So far, the government's expressed reason for building them is insufficient and ill-defined. And even if the camps do relate to illegal immigration, their purpose could be changed overnight.
This is an instance in which we could be well served by our representatives in Congress. They need to look at this and give constituents a better picture of what is going on.
Let's not have it said, years from now, that no one ever questioned this.
Hennessy's point is especially vital for those of us familiar with the history of the Japanese American concentration camps of World War II.
After all, as Testsuden Kashima established in his landmark work, Judgment Without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment during World War II, preparations for a mass incarceration of citizens based on their ethnicity had been long underway in the halls of American government well before the outbreak of war -- dating back, in fact, to the early 1930s, before Japan even began its military aggression. Most of these preparations, of course, were kept well under wraps.
And remember that the first two concentration camps holding Japanese Americans -- Manzanar and Poston -- were originally constructed by the Wartime Civil Control Administration in early 1942 as "reception centers" that were supposed to only provide temporary housing for Japanese evacuees seeking new homes under the original "voluntary relocation" scheme.
What happened next, as Eric Muller describes in Free To Die For Their Country, was a classic instance of the critical role played by overt racism in the drama: A group of governors from various Western states got together and announced that they would not accept these evacuees within their borders unless they were placed under armed guard and behind barbed wire. So those innocent-seeming "reception centers" became de facto concentration camps ... with just a twist of the euphemism. The new name was "relocation centers."
So, as Hennessy suggests, it would behoove all of us to begin asking: Just what crisis of "mass immigration" does the government foresee as a possibility? And is it strong enough to warrant the actual construction of concentration camps?
And most of all: Why now?