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Our History of Blaming Immigrants for Disease

The ugly tradition of blaming newcomers for the spread of illness dates back to the United States’ earliest years

Robert A Stribley
Apr 12, 2019 · 9 min read
Photo: bauhaus1000/Getty Images

If critics most often summon the specter of criminality to dehumanize immigrants, the specter they’re likely to call upon second is disease. It’s a grotesque tradition that reaches back to the early years of our nation’s history. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for example, was steeped in fears about Chinese workers bringing disease to the United States. A cartoon published that year in the Wasp, a popular West Coast magazine, captured the sentiment in the form of three horrifying ghosts looming over San Francisco and bearing the names Malarium, Small-Pox, and Leprosy.

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Image: George Frederick Keller/‘The Wasp’ via The Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

The image represents a moment in California history when Chinese immigrants were scapegoated for the spread of disease. Several years earlier, San Francisco’s city health officer had also blamed Chinese people for a local smallpox epidemic, despite having no evidence:

I unhesitatingly declare my belief that this cause is the presence in our midst of 30,000… unscrupulous, lying and treacherous Chinamen, who have disregarded our sanitary laws, concealed and are concealing their cases of small-pox.

In 1900, authorities even quarantined and surrounded Chinatown with barbed wire, declaring an outbreak of the bubonic plague after the body of a single Chinese laborer was found.

Modern cartoonists still deploy these awful characterizations of immigrants.

In 1896, a cartoon from the Ram’s Horn magazine portrayed stately Uncle Sam standing at the gate to the United States as a bent-over immigrant approaches. The bearded, hunched man is laden with frightening baggage that includes disease, naturally, but also poverty, superstition (ironically), anarchy, intemperance, and—just to seal the deal—a big ol’ barrel of “Sabbath desecration.”

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Image: Ram’s Horn Press/The Cartoon Research Library of Ohio State University

In a 1903 editorial cartoon for Judge magazine, a health inspector wields a giant syringe and a placard proclaiming, “He brings disease.” The immigrant carries a box with a message highlighting the fears of existing Americans: “One million immigrants came to the U.S. in twelve months.” Note that the caption deems the immigrant at best “an acquisition,” if not “a detriment.”

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Image: Frederick Victor Gillam/Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum/Ohio State University Library

It’s also wasn’t unusual for immigrants to be depicted as pests that may carry disease, such as the rats in the 1903 cartoon below or the swarm of grasshoppers in the 1923 cartoon beside it.

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Images: Louis Dairymple/‘Judge’/Wikimedia Commons; Edwin Marcus/‘Saturday Evening Post’/National Archives Catalog

Modern cartoonists still deploy these awful characterizations of immigrants. Here, cartoonist Rick McKee gives Donald Trump a leg up by depicting two immigrants hoisting themselves over a fence with a line of admittedly cute and colorful diseases hoping to tag along.

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Image: Rick McKee/‘Augusta Chronicle’/Fair use

Whenever diseases do encroach upon our shores, pundits try to insert immigrants into the narrative. Remember back in 2014 when we were terrified by Ebola? Remember how Chris Christie’s New Jersey forced an asymptomatic nurse who tested negative for the virus into quarantine for three days because she’d worked with Ebola patients in West Africa?

At the time, you didn’t have to look far to find folks attempting to hitch Ebola to the immigrant community. Although there were zero reports of Ebola entering the country through our southern border, right-wing Republicans tried to portray Latin American immigrants as carriers of the disease.

As a candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in New Hampshire, Scott Brown expressed fears—devoid of any evidence—that undocumented immigrants were bringing Ebola into the country. Sen. Thom Tillis, then campaigning for his North Carolina seat, suggested we should shut down our southern border completely to keep the Ebola menace at bay. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky expressed similar concerns. Fox News anchor Chris Wallace even coughed up a scenario where an Ebola-infected terrorist might launch a biological terror attack after crossing our border with Mexico.

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Chris Wallace, Fox News host, suggesting that Ebola could be weaponized via our southern border. Screenshot: Fox News/YouTube

Oddly enough, none of these Republicans suggested sealing off our border with Canada. Presented with the possibility of Ebola flooding our Mexican border, Dr. Thomas Frieden, then-director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was unequivocal: “That is not happening,” he said.

Then there was Zika. In 2015-16, a Zika epidemic spread across the Americas. Our government arguably failed both to prepare us for the outbreak and to educate us about how Zika is transmitted. In the absence of a strong public health response, conservative blogger Michelle Malkin hashed out a diatribe that saddled fears of Zika to her favorite target: undocumented immigrants.

“Latin America’s Zika virus is the latest undocumented immigrant to hit our shores,” she wrote, eagerly conflating immigrants with a disease. Despite Zika’s likely origins in, well, the Zika Forest of Uganda, Malkin described Central and South America as “ground zero for Zika and other infectious diseases including tuberculosis, dengue, Chagas, Chikungunya and schistosomiasis.”

Given that the U.S. population nears 330 million, is 50 sick people approaching our border on any given day truly a crisis?

Our Zika fears from just three years ago are all but forgotten now. But the impulse to generate fear with the threat of disease and to point the finger at immigrants remains. This calculus of stigmatization seeps into our daily conversation about immigration in the United States. On the campaign trail in 2015, Donald Trump claimed that “tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border.” Late last year, he repeated his unfounded claim that these immigrants present a “tremendous medical problem.”

Of course, there’s no trove of data to support Trump’s assertion that undocumented immigrants are spreading “large scale crime and disease.” Nonetheless, his army of true believers latch onto these falsehoods and spread the misinformation… like a virus.

Similarly, a December 2018 article by the Washington Times read: “Border authorities are referring 50 people a day for urgent medical care, including tuberculosis, flu and even pregnant women about to give birth.” The Times quoted Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner Kevin McAleenan:

“Many were ill before they departed their homes,” the commissioner said. “We’re talking about cases of pneumonia, tuberculosis, parasites. These are not things that developed urgently in a matter of days.”

This may sound like reasonable cause for concern, but given that the U.S. population nears 330 million, is 50 sick people approaching our border on any given day truly a crisis? A greater number probably present themselves with an illness at your corner clinic every day.

We’ve also seen the various migrant caravans provoke fear, animosity, and misinformation. Last year, Fox News trumpeted a report from Tijuana that more than a third of the 6,000 migrants in the caravan was being treated for health issues. In addition to noting that more than 60% had respiratory infections, the network zeroed in on three “confirmed cases” of tuberculosis, four cases of HIV/AIDS, four cases of chickenpox, and 101 cases of lice.

Disease shouldn’t be blamed on any particular group, especially not those already impoverished and disadvantaged.

Disease can affect any human being. It can be inflamed by poverty, travail, or certain living conditions. It shouldn’t be blamed on any particular group, especially not those already impoverished and disadvantaged.

Subsequent references to the Fox News story exaggerated the already sketchy reporting, claiming that one-third of the migrants suffered from HIV, tuberculosis, or chickenpox. Snopes rated these claims “mostly false,” highlighting what should be obvious to any curious observer.

The Associated Press took a more nuanced approach to the same story, focusing on the unsanitary living conditions at the Tijuana shelter that contributed to the spread of illness. The more detailed AP report also noted that many migrants were suffering from dehydration and that their feet were damaged and blistered after walking hundreds of miles. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Fox News didn’t highlight these facts. After all, doing that would have cast these migrants in a much more sympathetic light.

The fixation on disease among immigrants means some detainees being treated for scabies and a single case of chickenpox at an ICE facility last year apparently warranted press coverage. Never mind the fact that anti-vaxxer Americans have triggered their own outbreaks of the measles and chickenpox in places like Kentucky, North Carolina, and New York.

The insidious practice of tying immigrants to disease is the focus of the book Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes, and the “Immigrant Menace” by Alan Kraut, a history professor at American University. Last October, Kraut spoke to Inverse about the unverified claims made about migrant caravans:

The problem becomes when individuals who are already nativistic in their inclinations use disease as a metaphor to describe others because of who they are, not because of health conditions. It seems to lend itself to a scientific justification, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s the use of language to stigmatize people you already want to shun for another reason.

According to a landmark report on migration and health published late last year in the Lancet, migrants in high-income countries like the United States “are more likely to bolster services by providing medical care, teaching children, caring for older people, and supporting understaffed services.” In other words, they’re more likely to be fighting diseases, not spreading them.

“There is no evidence to show that migrants are spreading disease,” one of the report’s authors, Dr. Paul Spiegel, told NBC. “That is a false argument that is used to keep migrants out.”

When diseases do flourish in migrant populations, it’s often due to poor conditions in government-run refugee camps and detention facilities. In other words, our treatment of migrants can cause the spread of disease.

So, next time you read a report linking immigrants to disease, recognize that someone is tapping into some of our basest beliefs again. They’re applying ugly, disproven, xenophobic stereotypes about immigrants to our fellow human beings. It still works. And so long as this tradition bears fruit, it will continue.

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