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.

Child Immigrants.
An officer helps two young boys pick out clothes as they join the growing number of Central American immigrant children being processed and held in Nogales, Arizona.

Photo by Ross D. Franklin-Pool/Getty Images

Since last October, the United States has caught tens of thousands of children crossing the border with Mexico, most fleeing violence in Central America. Thousands continue to come into the country, and President Obama has called the influx an “urgent humanitarian situation,” asking Congress for $3.7 billion in funding to deal with the children and families that have arrived.

Jamelle Bouie Jamelle Bouie

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

Complicating the problem are growing protests against the immigrants. “I’m protesting the invasion of the United States by people of foreign countries,” said one person at a recent demonstration in Oracle, Arizona. “This is about the sovereignty of our nation.” And at a similar one in Murietta, California, demonstrators held signs saying “illegals out!” and called for the U.S. government to “stop illegal immigration.”

But for as much as this anger is organic, growing from fear and anxiety, it’s also true that conservative media figures have stoked tensions with wild and dishonest rhetoric on the supposed threat of new arrivals. “Dengue fever, 50 to 100 million new cases a year of dengue fever worldwide. In Mexico, it is endemic. It’s a terrible disease, for anyone that’s had it,” said Fox News host Marc Siegel, who continued with a warning. “There’s no effective treatment of it. It’s now emerging in Texas because of the immigration crisis.” Likewise, on her radio show, Laura Ingraham declared, “The government spreads the illegal immigrants across the country, and the disease is spread across the country.”

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Republican politicians have joined in as well. “Reports of illegal immigrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus, and tuberculosis are particularly concerning,” wrote Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey in a recent letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. His colleague, Texas Rep. Randy Weber, sounded a similar note in an interview with conservative pundit Frank Gaffney: “I heard on the radio this morning that there have been two confirmed cases of TB—tuberculosis—and either one or two confirmed cases of swine flu, H1N1. … We’re thinking these are diseases that we have eradicated in our country and our population isn’t ready for this, so for this to break out to be a pandemic would be unbelievable.” And Rep. Louie Gohmert—no stranger to the offensive outburst—told conservative publication Newsmax that “we don’t know what diseases they’re bringing in.”

But we do, and the reality is nowhere close to dire: While a handful of reports suggest there are incoming children with illnesses like measles and tuberculosis, the vast majority of these minors are healthy and vaccinated. Moreover, according to the Department of Homeland Security, border agents are required to screen “all incoming detainees to screen for any symptoms of contagious diseases of possible public health concern.” In short, the odds that migrant children would cause a general infection of anything are slim to none, right-wing claims notwithstanding.

These facts are easy to find, but it’s not a surprise that immigration opponents would claim otherwise. For as long as there have been immigrants to the United States, there has been scaremongering about their alleged disease and uncleanliness. What we’re hearing now, put simply, is an update on an old script.

“On the morning of 19 May 1900,” writes American University professor Alan M. Kraut in an essay titled “Foreign Bodies: The Perennial Negotiation over Health and Culture in a Nation of Immigrants,” “the Chinese community of San Francisco found itself under siege in the name of state and municipal security. It was not fear of bombs or terrorist attack that inspired officials to commit a wholesale violation of civil liberties that morning; it was fear of disease, specifically bubonic plague.”

That wasn’t the first quarantine of San Francisco’s Chinatown, and it wouldn’t be the last. Nor was it a surprise—local authorities long regarded Chinese immigrants as a threat to public health, a manifestation of long-standing nativist fears. To wit, notes Kraut, “The Irish were charged with bringing cholera to the United States in 1832. Later the Italians were stigmatized for polio. Tuberculosis was called the ‘Jewish disease.’ ” The entire discourse of 19th- and early 20th-century politics was saturated with attacks on immigrants as diseased intruders to the body politic. Indeed, this dialogue culminated, in 1891, to Congress, with revision of the 1882 Immigration Act to exclude “persons suffering from a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease” from entry into the United States.

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