Citing the “potential threat of communicable diseases,” the city council in League City, Texas, voted last week to ban undocumented children from entering the Houston suburb. In Murrieta, California, Mayor Alan Long claimed that the government was placing “ill and contagious” kids in its midst. Even national politicians who should know better—namely, House Republicans—are spreading lies and paranoia. Phil Gingrey, in a letter to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote that "deadly diseases" threaten “Americans who are not vaccinated—and especially young children and the elderly." And Randy Weber said, “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.”
There's a legitimate policy debate to have over the border crisis, but it must begin with the facts. Doctors have debunked claims of diseased-ridden children: The migrants tend to be middle class with updated vaccines. By engaging in this right-wing fear-mongering, the aforementioned elected officials—and many others—are earning their ignominious place in a long, ugly history in American nativism that demonizes immigrants under the guise of public-health concerns.
With each wave of immigration, nativists have made public-health excuses for keeping out migrants. In the 1830s, cholera was described as an "Irish disease," and in the late 1800s Tuberculosis was portrayed as a "Jewish disease." In 1891, Congress banned any immigrant “suffering from a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease.” Even at Ellis Island, a site we celebrate as America’s front door for the “tired and weary,” medical inspections were a weapon aimed at immigrants who traveled on second and third class and were commonly used to quarantine and turn back unwanted immigrants.
Public-health nativism was also used to justify violence against immigrants. After a Chinese immigrant died of the bubonic plague in 1900, San Franciscans quarantined Chinatown and threatened to burn it down. Mayor James Phelan said that Chinese immigrants were “a constant menace to the public health.” Later, he ran for the Senate under a pledge to “Keep California White.”
More than a century later, the overt racism is gone but the underlying sentiment is the same. The ugly rhetoric we've seen over the past few weeks didn't emerge out of thin air. In 2005, Lou Dobbs's CNN show falsely reported that there had been 7,000 leprosy cases over the previous three years—one of immigration's "deadly imports," he said. The following year, Pat Buchanan claimed that "clearly the illegal aliens" were to blame for the rise in bedbug infestations. And so on.
Time and again, the public health opposition to immigration has been exposed as nothing more than a socially accepted form of xenophobia. That's true again today. Ignoring the expertise of public-health officials, congressional Republicans and other conservatives continue to invent their own "facts" to prop up, once again, the idea that our country is pure and that foreigners who are trying to enter it are impure. The real disease here, though, is what Democratic Congressman Luis Guitterez called the right's “demonization” of these desperate children.
Samuel Kleiner is a fellow at the Yale Law and Information Society Project.