A U.S. travel ban on West Africa is as anti-immigrant as it gets
by Prerna Lal
If history is any indication, when public health disasters arise, immigrants and people of color suffer.
Public health officials, and President Barack Obama, have made it clear that banning travel to and from West Africa will do nothing to stop the spread of Ebola, and some have argued it could even make the crisis worse. Yet, thanks to fear-mongering rather than facts, a majority of Americans want to impose a travel ban, and in true form, conservatives are seizing this opportunity to bash immigrants and push an anti-immigrant agenda.
Last week, the Federation for Immigration Reform’s Ira Mehlman tried to link the Ebola crisis with undocumented immigration, saying “people with diseases” are coming across our “open borders,” and charged that the president’s refusal to impose a travel ban was “due to his amnesty ideology.” Undoubtedly, anti-immigrant advocates such as Mehlman are trying to use the latest public health disaster as a backdoor to more stringent immigration laws, full-well knowing that it won’t do anything to stop the spread of Ebola,.
Using public health scare tactics to stigmatize people of color and immigrants is sadly nothing new. U.S. immigration policies have long-been crafted based on ill-perceived and imagined threats posed by immigrants. This goes all the way back to the Immigration Act of 1891, which explicitly excluded from entry all “persons suffering from a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease.”
Public health was used to deem people fit or unfit for admission and citizenship. Lawmakers and public health officials created new disease categories such as “poor physique,” “presenility,” and “low vitality” as an effective proxy to regulate immigrants on the basis of racial and religious differences.
Even a cursory inspection of U.S. immigration case files since 1891 reveals how public health measures like quarantine, surveillance, and behavior control have historically targeted people who are already disadvantaged, especially immigrants, the poor and people of color, including Asian Americans. This has added a medical dimension to preexisting nativism whereby the fears about diseased immigrants have led to fears about immigration from particular countries.
The Angel Island facility in San Francisco, California, offers a telling example. In the aftermath of the Immigration Act of 1891, perceptions of cultural and biological difference meant that Chinese, Japanese, South Asian and Filipino immigrants faced humiliating and intensive medical exams, and they were detained and deported at least five times more than the intending immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island. Similar measures were undertaken at the U.S.-Mexico border where immigrants from Mexico “were stripped naked, showered with kerosene, examined for lice and nits, and vaccinated for smallpox.”
This process of cleaning and disinfecting immigrant populations at our ports served to link immigrants with disease over a long period, and exclude entire categories of potential immigrants from the U.S. For example, with the passage of the 1924 Immigration Control and Nationality Act, the U.S. completely banned all immigration from Asia. Later, gays and lesbians were inadmissible to the U.S. for decades as they were deemed “afflicted with psychopathic personalities.”
Even harsher measures were taken against Haitian refugees who tested positive for HIV in the early 1990s: they were imprisoned at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay. During the SARS epidemic in 2003, Chinatown in New York City was identified as a site of contagion even though it had no actual case of SARS. Conservatives have blamed the recent arrival of Central American minor refugees for spreading diseases such as leprosy or tuberculosis, regardless of the fact that many of these children have developed illnesses as a result of their prolonged detention in unsanitary U.S. jails.
By and large, immigrants — even those from Ebola-affected countries — do not pose a significant health risk to the United States. Existing immigration law adequately screens and renders inadmissible anyone who is deemed “to have a communicable disease of public health significance.”
Under current law, foreign nationals who wish to come to the United States generally must obtain a visa and submit to an inspection to be admitted. Intending immigrants must receive standard vaccinations against the following communicable diseases: mumps, measles, rubella, polio, tetanus and diphtheria toxoids, pertussis, influenza type B and hepatitis B. All things considered, intending immigrants to the United States are far better immunized than Americans.
Instead of spreading fear and using the latest public health scare as a reason to create more exclusionary immigration policies, our leaders must stand tall and act out of empathy and humanity. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services is already taking the lead on providing some immigration relief to people who may be deported back to Ebola-inflicted zones. With prospects of immigration reform stalled, the latest public health disaster should not afflict President Obama’s ability to deliver administrative relief for as many immigrants as possible.
Prerna Lal is a staff attorney and the 2014–2016 NAPABA Law Foundation Partners and In-House Counsel Community Law Fellow at Advancing Justice | AAJC
 Matter of S, 8 I. & N. Dec. 409 (BIA 1959).