The Social Construction of Disease and Undocumented Immigrants

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Today, television’s talking heads and anti-immigration politicians are similarly blaming unaccompanied immigrant children for what would be the ultimate apocalyptic plague. Leprosy, Ebola, measles, mumps, malaria, bedbugs, tetanus, polio and diphtheria have all been referred to as “immigrant diseases.” Fox News bobble-head Cal Thomas, for example, wondered aloud on the air if, “the unaccompanied minors pouring over the border…have brought with them proof of vaccination?” Thomas accused the border-crossers of harboring vaccine-preventable diseases such as “mumps, measles, rubella, polio, tetanus and diphtheria.” On July 9th, Andy Weber, the Republican representative from Texas’ 14th district, warned: “We’re thinking these are diseases that we have eradicated in our country and our population isn’t ready for this, so for this to break out to be a pandemic would be unbelievable.” In late July 2014, the city council in League City, Texas voted to ban undocumented children from its Houston suburb, while in Murrieta, California the Mayor accused the federal government of dumping “contagious” children into their community.

Unfortunately, blaming immigrants for the rampant spread of disease is not new. In the 1830s, for example, nativists blamed Irish immigrants for cholera. In the 1890s, members of Congress took to the floor to call Tuberculosis the “Jewish disease.” In 1900, San Francisco quarantined Chinatown and the Mayor, who would later run for the U.S. Senate under the slogan “Keep California White,” threatened to burn Chinatown down after a single Chinese immigrant died of bubonic plague.

The use of contagious disease as an excuse for anti-immigration policies is and has been a traditional falsehood promulgated by nativist politicians, who, incidentally, used to refer to themselves as the “Know-Nothings.” That appellation is certainly appropriate when you consider the facts. First, residents of Central American countries are vaccinated against all the aforementioned diseases. In fact, they are better protected from disease than children in Texas. In Guatemala, vaccines are provided for free by the government under their system of universal health care. Compare this to Texas, where 17% of the children don’t have medical insurance and can’t afford vaccinations. Meanwhile, Guatemala and Honduras have not had a single reported case of the measles, since 1990, while there has been a resurgence of measles in several U.S. cities due to parents choosing to not vaccinate their children.

Therefore, it appears the current fervor over immigrant disease is another right-wing, nativist, and racist lie. Unfortunately, it is one of many such lies including: immigrants cause crime waves; immigrants take American jobs; immigrants don’t pay taxes; and, immigrants swell the welfare rolls. Those charges are all easily refuted and totally untrue, but this is a special case because children are being used as an excuse for draconian immigration policies, while being vilified by politicians and media bobble-heads. And when Americans believe those lies, they expose their ignorance, lazy acceptance of racist propaganda along with the worship of their own privilege.

Gary W. Potter, Ph.D.
Professor, School of Justice Studies &
Melisa Pujol
Eastern Kentucky University


Carpentier, M., K. Epstein, L. Gambino, N. Popovich and M. Sullivan. 2014. Illegals and gangsters and Ebola, oh my! 5 conservative immigration myths of the moment, made sane. The Guardian. July 15.

Choate, T. 2014. Epidemiologist says notion that immigrants are bringing disease is myth. Wichita Falls Times Record, July 24.

Jajoski, R. 2006. Summary of Notifiable Diseases — United States. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 16.

Kleiner, S, 2014. Welcome to the latest chapter in America’s long, ugly history of nativism. The New Republic, June 26.

Pearson, R. 2014. Disease threat from immigrant children wildly overstated. Texas Observer, July 10.

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