Immigrant Kids and the Fear of Disease

The insistence on stigmatizing migrating foreigners because they are not exempt from normal health troubles is an old disorder. But it's entirely homegrown.


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In 1952, Sen. Patrick McCarran of Nevada took the Senate floor to warn of the dangers posed by foreigners. The immigration system, he said, is a stream that flows into our society, and "if that stream is polluted our institutions and our way of life becomes infected." He was not the last person to see those migrating here as a terrifying source of contamination.

A couple of weeks ago, the city council of League City, Texas, passed a resolution expressing worry that "many illegal aliens suffering from diseases endemic in their countries of origin are being released into our communities." Tom Green County claimed the influx of Central Americans at the southern border puts Americans "at risk for epidemics of serious diseases." A Texas congressman said they might be carrying Ebola.

Now, there is no doubt that some of the youngsters and adults arriving in Texas suffer from various afflictions, including scabies and lice. It's hard to maintain optimal hygiene while trekking through the desert and sneaking rides on freight trains.

But scabies and lice are not unique to Honduras and Guatemala. The United States has a million cases of scabies every year and as many as 12 million of lice infestation. Local officeholders in Texas, however, rarely get agitated when these ailments pop up in New York or St. Louis.

Carrie Williams of the Texas Department of Public Health Services told The New York Times that the incidence of scabies among these newcomers is "not outside the norm of what we would expect."

As for more serious illnesses, the fear is also largely needless. "Cases of infectious disease are so scarce that rates cannot be calculated," Rachel Schultz, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security, told me. The main medical problems plaguing the asylum-seekers, she said, are "dehydration, heat exhaustion, cuts, bruises, foot and ankle injuries, etc." Good news: Dehydration is easily curable—and non-contagious.

Williams counted just three cases of tuberculosis—which compares to the 1,233 cases in the state in 2012. The Texas Observer reports that "Guatemalan kids are more likely than Texans to be immunized for infectious diseases."

There hasn't been a confirmed case of measles in Guatemala or Honduras in over two decades. The Ebola specter is especially preposterous, since the disease has never showed up outside of Africa.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who has helped in bringing some of the kids to Dallas to be housed, told The Dallas Morning News, "The diseases that the children carry are, for the most part, diseases that go through every elementary school in (Dallas Independent School District) every year. And the more serious diseases are the diseases we treat at Parkland (hospital) every day."

The warnings of incoming microbes do not stem from a mere abundance of caution about public health. There is more at work. The alarms sounded by anti-immigration forces are part of a long pattern of accusing immigrants of exposing clean, healthy Americans to filth and disease.

American University historian Alan Kraut writes that often, "native-born Americans' fear of disease from abroad became a rationale for an equally great and preexisting prejudice." When the Irish arrived, they were accused of bringing cholera. European Jews were seen as carriers for tuberculosis. Asians were alleged vessels for hookworm.

The Immigration Act of 1891 barred entry to anyone with "a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease." Even then, the risk was mostly imaginary. In the ensuing years, only 3 percent of arriving immigrants were turned away because of physical or mental illness.

Race, of course, plays a role in our fears. If we were warned of blue-eyed Canadians coming over the bridge from Windsor, Ontario, with mild but contagious skin disorders, the warnings might not resonate. But dark-skinned foreigners have long evoked special discomfort among many Americans.

The concern about foreign-borne illness is not completely unfounded, but why is it only immigrants who stimulate intense anxiety? If there are diseases endemic to the nations south of us, we don't need immigrants to transport them.

After all, more than four million Americans travel to Central or South America each year, and another 20 million visit Mexico. We somehow survive whatever germs they bring back.

The insistence on stigmatizing migrating foreigners because they are not exempt from normal health troubles is an old disorder. But it's entirely homegrown.