Inside the Right-Wing's Creepy Demonization of Helpless Children

The crisis at the border is bringing out the worst in America's conservative media.

Immigrants wait for a naturalization ceremony held at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office on January 17, 2014 in New York City

The anti-immigrant protests in Murrieta, California last week brought the issue of Central American children flooding to the border to national attention. The influx of kids applying for asylum under a law signed by George W. Bush is becoming a humanitarian crisis, with services being stretched to the limit and calls for the children to be immediately deported back to their troubled homelands. It's now the focus of intense political debate as the Republicans try to blame Obama and demand he use his executive powers to close the border. On Wednesday he threw the gauntlet back and requested that the House pass his emergency supplemental request to ease the social services on the border and pass the Senate comprehensive immigration reform bill. As of today, the stand-off continues.

But while the intense reaction among conservatives may seem to have only developed recently, it's been simmering for some time on conservative media. Talk radio show hosts like Laura Ingraham had been demagoguing the issue for weeks, fulminating about the threat to America's "way of life" and grumbling that the ungrateful tykes were complaining about the food, going so far as to mock them by playing the "Yo quiero Taco Bell" tag line. When the administration submitted a request for more funds to house and keep the children in temporary quarters, an "anti-amnesty" group was inspired to suggest sending their used underwear to save the government from having to procure any. The Koch-funded conservative blog American Prosperity Network issued shrill dispatches claiming that the influx of children on the border was an "orchestrated campaign" by the Democratic Party to draw government-dependent kids to the United States in order to steal jobs from Americans and add to their voter rolls. Republican luminaries such as possible presidential candidate and Texas Governor Rick Perry signed on to that conspiracy theory saying on ABC's This Week, "I hate to be conspiratorial, but I mean how do you move that many people from Central America across Mexico and then into the United States without there being a fairly coordinated effort?"

But the controversy really boiled over with news reports last week that these children were "diseased" and were being shipped all over the nation, infecting Americans with everything from H1N1 flu to scabies to Cangas fever. Whatever other problems these people may have had with these children being allowed to seek asylum in America, it was now a public health threat.

The Drudge Report pulled out its trusty siren and blared that Border Patrol agents had tested positive for "diseases carried by immigrants." Talk radio show host Bryan Fischer hysterically tweeted that 4 out of 5 border patrol agents were infected. (The report actually said "4 or 5" border patrol agents....) The Daily Beast, quoting anonymous sources, breathlessly reported that two children had tested positively for the H1N1 virus and erroneously proclaimed that it had been eradicated in the US until now. In fact, H1N1 is a common flu virus in the US and it is included in the flu vaccines for 2014. Nonetheless, the word went forth that the "pint-sized carriers" needed to be quarantined lest decent Americans be infected by deadly swine flu.

Michael Savage, the radio talk show host best known for being kicked off of television for telling a viewer that he hoped he would "get AIDS and die" has long been an advocate of closing the borders due to the threat of disease. He styles himself an "epidemiologist" but in reality has a Phd in a field called "ethnomedicine" which, according to Wikipedia, is "the study of traditional medicine practiced by various ethnic groups, and especially by indigenous peoples." He spent years in the field of alternative medicine until his final health and nutrition manuscript (Immigrants and Epidemics) was rejected by publishers for being inflammatory and he turned full-time to right-wing radio. He is to epidemiology what far-right Christian historian David Barton is to American history: a quack. But that did not stop him from issuing a hysterical public health advisory:

“Right now, you’re not going to hear this, but we have tuberculosis, hand-foot-and-mouth disease, Chagas disease – previously eradicated from Southern California – on the rise and testing positive in … Border Patrol agents,” Savage said.

Other diseases emerging among Border Patrol agents, he said, include H1N1 swine flu and chicken pox.

“The Border Patrol is being threatened with lawsuits and firing if they disclose this,” he said. “Congressmen are being turned away from the border as they go to investigate this surge of infected illegal aliens being thrown across the border at us.”

The rumors of agents and other caretakers being threatened with firing were given a full airing on Fox News after one of its online opinion writers published an overwrought report that a "government-contracted security force" at the border facilities had threatened doctors and nurses if they divulged any facts about the threat of an epidemic in the camps. Some of them came forward anyway, at what they perceived to be great risk to themselves because "taxpayers deserve to know about the contagious diseases and the risks the children pose to Americans." They said these security forces called themselves the "Brown Shirts" and claimed, “It was a very submissive atmosphere. Once you stepped onto the grounds, you abided by their laws – the Brown Shirt laws...Everyone was paranoid. The children had more rights than the workers.”

These "brownshirts" turned out to be employees of the emergency management firm BCFS.  They've been around since the '40s, and if you've ever been through a natural disaster you've undoubtedly seen them. And what they were supposedly covering up was the fact that some of the kids had lice and strep throat as well as other childhood diseases and some mental and emotional issues. (One hopes they keep the brownshirts away from the average American elementary school. Those places are overrun with exactly the same problems.)

Unfortunately, this is a very old story, familiar to immigrants everywhere. Superstition and racial and ethnic hostility often lead people to blame them for disease epidemics and outbreaks regardless of the facts. Those who arrived at Ellis Island were subjected to crude medical examinations with those who were decreed to be disabled or diseased often denied entry. But the migrants who enter the US over its southern border have been subjected to especially terrible treatment over the years in the name of public health.

In fact, one of America's most shameful episodes in its long history of immigrant mistreatment took place at the US Mexican border after 1917 when the federal government passed a new immigration act which for the first time placed harsh restrictions on immigration. New regulations required that inspectors bathe and "delouse" the migrants and fumigate all of their belongings before allowing them into the country. (This only applied to the "second class" migrants—it was estimated that at least 4 or 5 people were allowed in each day without having to pass medical inspection based on the inspector's visual evaluation.)

These procedures were precipitated by a manufactured typhus scare. In the beginning, the Progressive mayor of El Paso, who had won his office promising to reform government by rooting out both corruption and the "lousy" immigrants, had proposed to quarantine all migrants to ensure they weren't carrying typhus, a disease he was so phobic about that he wore silk underwear because he'd been told typhus could not survive in that material. He was overruled by a public health official with the compromise to bathe, delouse and fumigate.

In a famous act of civil disobedience, a 17-year-old maid from Juarez who crossed the border daily to clean American houses, led a large group of women to rebel against the humiliating process and confront the inspectors. It devolved into a riot appropriately called "The Bath Riots." Unfortunately, it failed to change the process which remained in place for many decades.

The process was toxic in the extreme. It has been well known that the inspectors used DDT and other harsh pesticides directly on the migrants. They routinely poured gasoline on migrants' bodies to kill lice resulting in episodes of human beings being accidentally set afire.  And astonishingly, David Dorado Romo, in his book Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juarez, 1893-1923 revealed that he found evidence in the National Archives that one of the chemicals used was Zyclon-B, the deadly gas used by the Nazis in their WWII death camps. In fact, a letter from a German scientist in 1938 showed that the Germans were so impressed by America's success with this fumigant that they adopted it for their own notorious use.

There is no evidence that these immigrants were ever carrying disease that did not already exist on the American side of the border. Indeed, it's an absurd concept. The border is an imaginary line that germs and viruses do not acknowledge. It's even more absurd today than it was then with travelers from all over the world flying into America and Americans traveling all over the world in massive numbers. 

Needless to say, this behavior is an expression of xenophobia, not a fear of disease. It's been used since time immemorial to characterize "the other" as a threat. It has been a fact of life along the United States' southern border for nearly a century. But there's a particular ugliness to this latest outbreak of nativism because the alleged carriers of disease are children who are escaping a violent and repressive environment, alone, without any support or guidance beyond their parents' desperate instructions to try to make it to safety. To add to their burden with taunts of being foul and infectious is hideously cruel. It's long past time for Americans to evolve and see these migrants as human beings. They are kids, not carriers of disease—just innocent kids, no different from yours or mine.


Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.