America’s Long History of Immigrant Scaremongering

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July 18 2014 1:35 PM

America’s Long History of Immigrant Scaremongering

Conservatives claim that the young immigrants crossing the border are diseased and pose a dangerous public health risk. It’s a sad American tradition.

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Protest3.
Protesters opposing the arrival of buses carrying undocumented migrants for processing at the Murrieta Border Patrol Station in California.

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

“Asians were portrayed as feeble and infested with hookworm, Mexicans as lousy, and eastern European Jews as vulnerable to trachoma, tuberculosis, and—a favorite ‘wastebasket’ diagnosis of nativists in the early 1900s—‘poor physique,’ ” write scholars Howard Markel and Alexandra Minna Stern in a 2002 paper on “the persistent association of immigrants and disease in American society.”

Vivid examples of this association aren’t hard to find. “[E]very ship from China brings hundreds of these syphilitic and leprous heathens,” writes one editor in an issue of Medico-Literary Journal. Likewise, wrote one columnist in an Oct. 3, 1907 edition of the Princeton Union, “[German immigrants] produce large and swarming hives of children who grow up dirty, ignorant, depraved, and utterly unfit for American citizenship.” And in a Dec. 1, 1906 edition of the Deseret Evening News, one writer complained of “runners” in southern and eastern Europe who “tell fairy tales about the prosperity of the many immigrants now in America and the opportunities we offer to aliens. It is by such means that paupers and diseased persons are induced to make the journey, only to find that they are shipped back upon landing.”

Mass participation in World War II changed American perspectives of European immigrants, and later, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ended national quotas and opened the doors to a huge numbers of immigrants from around the world. Still, the link between immigration and disease has persisted through the 20th century and into the 21st.

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In the 1980s, for example, the influx of Haitian refugees merged with the AIDS crisis to produce a new wave of anti-immigrant discrimination. “When AIDS appeared suddenly in the 1980s,” writes Markel and Stern, “it was quickly conflated with deviant sexuality and several minority groups, ranging from gays and intravenous drug abusers to Haitians and Africans.” In 1983, the appearance of HIV among several Haitian detainees led the CDC to add the group to its list of “recognized vectors” for the virus, and in 1990—acting on potent AIDS stereotypes—it banned all Haitians from donating blood in the United States. What’s more, that same year, the Immigration and Naturalization Service began to detain and quarantine HIV-positive immigrants at the U.S. base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

And in 1993, echoing earlier language against “paupers and diseased person,” Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickles introduced a bill prohibiting the entry of all HIV-positive immigrants on economic grounds, arguing that—if we didn’t—“it will almost be like an invitation for many people who carry this dreadful, deadly disease, to come into the country because we do have quality health care in this country … and jeopardize the lives of countless Americans and will cost U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars.”

Beyond the present situation, the most recent attacks on immigrants as carriers of disease came during the Bush administration. In 2005, an episode of Lou Dobbs Tonight falsely asserted, “We have some enormous problems with horrendous diseases that are being brought into America by illegal aliens,” including 7,000 cases of leprosy in the past three years. On his radio show, Bill O’Reilly agreed that immigrants were crossing the border with “tuberculosis, syphillis, and leprosy,” and in 2006, Pat Buchanan claimed “illegal aliens” were responsible for bedbug infestations in “26 states.” In reality, health officials attribute the growth in bedbugs to “widespread use of baits instead of insecticide sprays” for pest control.

Today, anti-immigrant protesters hold signs asking Washington to “Save our children from diseases,” while right-wing lawmakers fret about disease screening and spread fears of infection and contamination. In doing so, both draw from a long history of ugly nativism and prejudice dressed as concern for public health. And you don’t have to be a liberal, or support immigration reform, to see that it’s a disgrace.

Jamelle Bouie is a Slate staff writer covering politics, policy, and race.

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