America’s Long History of Immigrant Scaremongering

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tags: immigration



Jamelle Bouie is a Slate staff writer covering politics, policy, and race.

...While a handful of reports suggest there are incoming children with illnesses like measles and tuberculosis, the vast majority of these minors are healthy and vaccinated. Moreover, according to the Department of Homeland Security, border agents are required to screen “all incoming detainees to screen for any symptoms of contagious diseases of possible public health concern.” In short, the odds that migrant children would cause a general infection of anything are slim to none, right-wing claims notwithstanding.

These facts are easy to find, but it’s not a surprise that immigration opponents would claim otherwise. For as long as there have been immigrants to the United States, there has been scaremongering about their alleged disease and uncleanliness. What we’re hearing now, put simply, is an update on an old script.

“On the morning of 19 May 1900,” writes American University professor Alan M. Kraut in an essay titled “Foreign Bodies: The Perennial Negotiation over Health and Culture in a Nation of Immigrants,” “the Chinese community of San Francisco found itself under siege in the name of state and municipal security. It was not fear of bombs or terrorist attack that inspired officials to commit a wholesale violation of civil liberties that morning; it was fear of disease, specifically bubonic plague.”

That wasn’t the first quarantine of San Francisco’s Chinatown, and it wouldn’t be the last. Nor was it a surprise—local authorities long regarded Chinese immigrants as a threat to public health, a manifestation of long-standing nativist fears. To wit, notes Kraut, “The Irish were charged with bringing cholera to the United States in 1832. Later the Italians were stigmatized for polio. Tuberculosis was called the ‘Jewish disease.’ ” The entire discourse of 19th- and early 20th-century politics was saturated with attacks on immigrants as diseased intruders to the body politic. Indeed, this dialogue culminated, in 1891, to Congress, with revision of the 1882 Immigration Act to exclude “persons suffering from a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease” from entry into the United States...




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