How Fox News and Drudge Push The Mexican 'Germ Invasion' Myth

Late last week, before President Obama gave up on pressuring Congress on comprehensive immigration reform in favor of his familiar executive actions, media outlets began pressing a familiar non-news item.

The local CBS station in Dallas/Fort Worth reported that "four or five [US Border Patrol] agents have tested positive" for illnesses such as chicken pox or tuberculosis, ostensibly contracted at their border posts. With over 18,500 agents stationed along the Mexican border, the headline probably should have been something like "Border Patrol Agents Unusually Healthy Among Americans". Matt Drudge preferred, as usual, a more pernicious threat: BORDER PATROL AGENTS TEST POSITIVE FOR DISEASE CARRIED BY IMMIGRANTS.

Channel 11 in Dallas also reported that one of the children among the 52,000 who have crossed US borders in the last few months has been diagnosed with H1N1 virus (also known as "swine flu"). Congressman Henry Cuellar blamed the potential problem on "some of these countries where they don't have great health care systems." Perhaps he was talking about the United States: Now that H1N1 is the predominant flu strain in the US and Canada, the Centers for Disease Control reports that 2,008 of the 2,815 reported cases of the flu in the US this seasonhave been identified as H1N1. That means that if you had the flu in the US in the past nine months, it is more than 70% likely that you were infected with the swine flu, just like the sick child trapped in Texas.

A little informed comparison can be helpful: a study of mortality among US school teachers suggests that they contract autoimmune illnesses at a rate disproportionate with the general population. Also: the subway is a major conduit for the spread of influenza, including swine flu.

Fortunately, we haven't begun a Typhoid Mary-style campaign against every American who used public transportation, taught a middle-school class and/or sneezed this year. But the myth of diseased hordes of immigrants has a long history in the American imagination, and now it is inflaming anti-immigration sentiment at a time when we need to address the real humanitarian needs of the people who cross our borders in search of opportunity.

While President Obama said on Monday that he is working to "address the urgent humanitarian challenge on the border", the conservative radio host Bryan Fischer suggests that the real "humanitarian disaster" is the threat the children pose to US citizens' health. (He also thinks "children are now dying at the border because of Obama".) Dr Marc Siegelpreemptively declared on Fox News that the immigrant children were "a big health crisis" – despite the fact that the US Department of Health and Human Services vaccinates and screens every recovered child.

The result of this false reporting is widespread public anxiety that immigrant populations pose a threat to the health and safety of US citizens. And the usual "not in my neighborhood" cries have gone up on social media, insisting that the women and children who have recently migrated in huge waves should not be allowed a safe space to live in the United States while their cases get sorted out.

The howls are particularly egregious if it means the latest migrants to America live anywhere near the apparently full-blooded Americans who do not recall their own immigrant heritages or their ancestors who were wrongfully accused of contaminating the nation in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Let's put this summer's rhetoric into perspective: 1918 saw a worldwide flu pandemic during which at least 20m people died globally and as many as 550,000 died in the US alone. Sometimes called Spanish influenza because the first cases were diagnosed in Spain, little was known about who carried the flu and where it originated. But the infection knew no age, class, race or ethnic bounds – people all over the world succumbed to a simple but deadly flu.

However, US reporting on the Spanish flu and other diseases that arose at that time suggested erroneously that a surge in immigration caused the increased infections. In Denver, the Ku Klux Klan promoted anti-Italian sentiment by suggesting that the recent immigrants from Europe were responsible for the flu. Germans were accused of using the flu as germ warfare. Irish immigrants were charged with spreading cholera. Tuberculosis was dubbed the "tailor's disease" because people associated it with Jewish immigrants. Italians were blamed for polio, too, despite the fact that they were least likely to contract it.

The terror of immigration-born epidemics was largely imagined, of course, but it fueled very real anti-immigrant fears and resulted in discrimination and oppression. Those once-racialized groups are now folded into "whiteness" such that their histories of immigration have largely been erased from national memory. Without significant immigration reform, I fear the stigma attached to immigrants on the Mexican border may not fade so fast.


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