On Using Government Resources to Harm People Seeking Health and Safety

By Amber Akemi Piatt

Migrants take cover from tear gas fired by US agents. Image from CNN article.

Last Sunday the world watched with horror as United States Customs and Border Protection agents fired tear gas at families approaching the northern Mexican border. The situation was surreal. Mothers ran with their children — some of whom did not even have shoes on their feet — away from the militarized border. It looked like a war zone.

As a public health advocate, I have committed my life to equitably promoting and protecting the health and wellbeing of people where they live, work, play, and learn.

This egregious federal response to people fleeing violence, persecution, and poverty with hopes of finding care from their northern neighbor was antithetical to public health. Based on my understanding of the principles of ethical practice of public health, I think the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Public Health Association, and Public Health Leadership Society might agree with me. One of the 12 principles reads,

Public health should advocate and work for the empowerment of disenfranchised community members, aiming to ensure that the basic resources and conditions necessary for health are accessible to all.

The impact of Sunday’s atrocities on health is staggering.

The immediate health impacts of tear gas are known. A recent review of case studies and epidemiological studies confirmed that tear gas agents can cause lung, skin, eye, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal injuries and issues, including choking and hematemesis. Tear gas is irrefutably harmful. In fact, use of tear gas agents was banned under the 1993 Geneva International Chemical Weapons Convention in warfare between military forces.

Furthermore, while the immediate health impacts are known, the long-term effects are less understood. One survey found that people exposed to tear gas experienced persistent chest pain, vomited blood, and had difficulty breathing for weeks after exposure. However, this has yet to be systematically examined.

One must also consider how witnessing these injustices affects all people. Certainly, the Central American asylum seekers’ direct experience of the violence is trauma, as defined by the United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. What’s more, however, is that witnessing violence is also known to be harmful, especially for those with a history of traumatic experiences. It is easy to see how Sunday’s atrocities could be triggering. Tear gas has been wielded against communities of color and social justice movements for decades; notably against those who dared to declare that Black Lives Matter in Ferguson after Officer Darren Wilson mercilessly shot Michael Brown. Sunday was yet another example of racist, xenophobic state violence against people who are simply trying to live.

As if this policy decision weren’t bad enough, the Pentagon estimates a $210 million price tag associated with recently increasing military presence on the border. This was pursued despite the Pentagon’s own risk assessment that the migrant caravan posed no threat to the United States. Why, then, spend so much money on military force? Well, as Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us: “Budgets are moral documents.” President Trump’s moral compass points belligerent. It is no surprise that he chose to invest in unnecessary military intervention and outsized weapons. Sadly, this continues a long legacy of the United States’ bloated budgeting in the areas of international militarism and the criminal justice system.

These are my and your tax dollars being used to punish and harm people seeking a healthier, safer life.

Personally, I would rather see my tax dollars being used to fund public health solutions for real, pressing needs. I would like to ensure that all residents in places like the Central Valley of California have access to clean and affordable drinking water. I would like to ensure that all schools, especially those serving our young Black scholars, have a comprehensive staff of counselors instead of cops. I would like to increase access to treatment services, prevention, and overdose medications for diseases of despair in Appalachia and beyond. I would like to see all children have access to affordable, high-quality preschool programs, especially in places struggling with poverty.

These are the types of interventions we need.

Ultimately, we must hold our elected officials accountable for passing budgets and policies that reflect our shared commitments to care, fairness, and respect. Our health depends on it.


Amber Akemi Piatt is the Health Instead of Punishment Program Director at Human Impact Partners.