Immigration

Michelle Malkin and Michael Savage Use Swine Flu Crisis to Peddle Their Xenophobia

The right-wing pundits who seized on the swine flu to push their anti-immigrant rhetoric are employing an ancient racist tactic.

In the middle of the 14th century, the plague swept across Europe, leaving death and despair in its wake. A terrified and confused population blamed the Jews -- aliens in their midst -- for bringing the "black death" upon them.

Lacking knowledge of viruses or other microscopic organisms, they accused the Jews, a handy target, of poisoning the wells of Christian villages. The charge contributed to a series of pogroms in which thousands were burned alive.  

During the more than 600 years since, our understanding of disease transmission has advanced by leaps and bounds, but the same primitive tribalism that inspired the lethal xenophobia that raged across Europe then remains on display today.   

With hundreds of cases of swine flu reported in Mexico, and dozens more appearing in the U.S., anti-immigrant hard-liners wasted no time blaming their one-size-fits-all bogeyman for the disease.

They took to the airwaves and scribbled hastily on their blogs about how America's supposed "open-door policy" towards migrants from Mexico was the cause of the outbreak's appearance on this side of the Rio Grande. 

According to transcripts provided by the watchdog group Media Matters, blogger and former Fox News personality Michelle Malkin took a triumphal attitude over the handful of cases that have popped up in the U.S., writing: "I've blogged for years about the spread of contagious diseases from around the world into the U.S. as a result of uncontrolled immigration."  

Hate-radio host Michael Savage also advanced the argument, saying, "Make no mistake about it: Illegal aliens are the carriers of the new strain of human-swine avian flu from Mexico."

Savage then took it a step further, weaving the swine flu outbreak into a larger conspiracy that included another of his favorite monsters. "[C]ould this be a terrorist attack through Mexico?" he asked. "Could our dear friends in the radical Islamic countries have concocted this virus and planted it in Mexico knowing that you, [Homeland Security chief] Janet Napolitano, would do nothing to stop the flow of human traffic from Mexico?" If only he could have sewn together a plot by gay radical Islamic illegal immigrants from Mexico, he would have hit the far-right trifecta. 

Neal Boortz, Bill O'Reilly and others on the right agreed. Boortz asked, "[W]hat better way to sneak a virus into this country than give it to Mexicans? Right? I mean, 1 out of every 10 people born in Mexico is already living up here, and the rest are trying to get here. So you give -- you give -- you let this virus just spread in Mexico, where they don't have a CDC." 

These arguments -- if this kind of demagoguery can even be classified as such -- are easily dispatched. The flu virus is transmitted between humans, and the tiny organisms don‘t care whether those humans are Mexican immigrants or American tourists or truck drivers or corporate honchos traveling for business.

Every day, hundreds of thousands of humans and other animals cross the U.S.-Mexican border, and most are not picking up and moving, they're just visiting for work or pleasure. It's a product of a shrinking world with affordable means of travel -- suspected cases of the flu have popped up as far away from our southern border as New Zealand and Israel, places you don't associate with a lot of immigration from Latin America.  

Media Mattters noted, "several media reports on U.S. swine flu patients indicated that they had recently traveled to Mexico." A spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control told reporters, "I know that we have confirmation of disease in people who have traveled to Mexico … that is definitely the case in some of our cases, and that's an important factor to consider."  

The "open door" mantra is itself a right-wing myth -- a bit of pseudopopulism designed to piggy-back on the frustration most Americans feel over the abject failure of the same enforcement-heavy approach to immigration control that restrictionists prefer to make a major dent in the undocumented population.

The truth is that the number of dollars we spend on policing the border has skyrocketed during the past 15 years, with little impact on the undocumented population. The reality is that the federal government, at great expense to taxpayers, prosecutes more people for immigration violations than for any other offense -- they now represent more than half of all federal prosecutions.

According to the Washington Post, immigration authorities hold "more inmates a night than Clarion hotels have guests, operates nearly as many vehicles as Greyhound has buses and flies more people each day than do many small U.S. airlines." 

But none of that prevented the conservative media from singing their usual one-note tune about the "unchecked" flow of illegal immigrants, whom they've blamed in the past for everything from spreading leprosy in the U.S. to the rise and fall of the housing bubble.  

In a bit of unintentional irony, the hardliners' knee-jerk response lays bare the claim that they only object to illegal immigrants and welcome with open arms those whose papers are in order. Most people of Mexican descent living in this country are, after all, perfectly legal; the majority -- over 60 percent -- are U.S. citizens, and they, like other Americans, travel back and forth to Mexico and elsewhere.  

As is often the case, it may turn out that this entire narrative is a distraction from real and serious issues at hand. Just as immigration hard-liners rarely if ever acknowledge the relationship between the wave of immigration from Mexico that followed the passage of NAFTA and the tons of cheap, subsidized American corn that flooded Mexico and decimating its agricultural labor market, so too are they ignoring (preliminary) reports that suggest the ultimate cause of the disease outbreak may be industrial hog farms operated by U.S.-based meat giant Smithfield.

According to the Mexican daily La Jornada, Mexican officials said "the vector of this outbreak are the clouds of flies that come out of the hog barns, and the waste lagoons into which the Mexican-U.S. company spews tons of excrement." (The company denies the claim.) 

It would be easy to dismiss these ill-informed rants about immigration as unworthy of analysis because they're shared by a very small (if very loud) minority of the population. But, as in Europe during the Middle Ages, this kind of hate talk can have deadly consequences.  

Claims that Mexican immigrants (legal or otherwise) are disease-carrying pests aren't merely offensive, they constitute "eliminationist rhetoric" -- the idea that a group of people, usually portrayed as less than fully human, are destroying the country from within and need to be excised from the body politic.  

In the four years between 2003 and2007 (the most recent year for which complete data are available), the FBI reported increases in hate crimes against Latinos year after year, and experts say the trend is continuing.

The Savages, Glenn Becks and Malkins of the right-wing media may be clownish, but to the extent that they're helping shape a climate in which all people with an outward appearance similar to that of a migrant from south of the border face discrimination, if not outright peril, their shtick is anything but funny.

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet.
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