The Racist Trope of the Disease-Ridden Immigrant

One of the most commonly repeated tropes in American history is the idea that immigrants come here and spread disease. It’s been used to oppose virtually every immigrant group throughout our history and now it’s being used by xenophobes once again to demand that 52,000 young refugees be sent back to Central America. Samuel Kleiner recounts some of this vile history:

With each wave of immigration, nativists have made public-health excuses for keeping out migrants. In the 1830s, cholera was described as an “Irish disease,” and in the late 1800s Tuberculosis was portrayed as a “Jewish disease.” In 1891, Congress banned any immigrant “suffering from a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease.” Even at Ellis Island, a site we celebrate as America’s front door for the “tired and weary,” medical inspections were a weapon aimed at immigrants who traveled on second and third class and were commonly used to quarantine and turn back unwanted immigrants.

Public-health nativism was also used to justify violence against immigrants. After a Chinese immigrant died of the bubonic plague in 1900, San Franciscans quarantined Chinatown and threatened to burn it down. Mayor James Phelan said that Chinese immigrants were “a constant menace to the public health.” Later, he ran for the Senate under a pledge to “Keep California White.”

More than a century later, the overt racism is gone but the underlying sentiment is the same. The ugly rhetoric we’ve seen over the past few weeks didn’t emerge out of thin air. In 2005, Lou Dobbs’s CNN show falsely reported that there had been 7,000 leprosy cases over the previous three years—one of immigration’s “deadly imports,” he said. The following year, Pat Buchanan claimed that “clearly the illegal aliens” were to blame for the rise in bedbug infestations. And so on.

Time and again, the public health opposition to immigration has been exposed as nothing more than a socially accepted form of xenophobia. That’s true again today. Ignoring the expertise of public-health officials, congressional Republicans and other conservatives continue to invent their own “facts” to prop up, once again, the idea that our country is pure and that foreigners who are trying to enter it are impure. The real disease here, though, is what Democratic Congressman Luis Guitterez called the right’s “demonization” of these desperate children.

I’ve even seen several right-wing sites claim that these Central American refugees are bringing in the ebola virus, which does not exist in Central America. What’s next, schistosomiasis? And here’s a fascinating chart:


Maybe they should be more afraid of us going there.

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