Studies Show Fears About Migration and Disease Are Unfounded

Research has found that migrants and refugees don't spread diseases to host populations, though migrants themselves are often at higher risk of illness because of poor living conditions.
Author:
Publish date:
A Honduran mother holds her daughter, who fell ill, while being examined by a doctor outside a shelter for migrants on November 21st, 2018, in Mexicali, Mexico.

A Honduran mother holds her daughter, who fell ill, while being examined by a doctor outside a shelter for migrants on November 21st, 2018, in Mexicali, Mexico.

As the Trump administration forces asylum seekers to wait for long periods of time on the Mexican side of the border under the controversial "Remain in Mexico" plan, migrant shelters have struggled to accommodate them. In recent weeks, crowded conditions and squalor have led to a small chicken pox outbreak in one shelter in Mexicali, a city across the border from California. As the Palm Springs Desert Sun reports, there have been at least a dozen confirmed cases of the disease.

One of the people who contracted the virus was Maricela Lopez, an asylum seeker from Guatemala who had passed her credible fear interview in the United States before being forced back into Mexico to await her court date. But as the Desert Sun reports, when Lopez tried to cross back to attend her hearing, a Border Patrol officer saw the blisters on her face and refused her entry.

Immigrant rights advocates reacted strongly to the Desert Sun report. "This is really troubling. People forced to return to Mexico are now being refused entry for their court dates on health grounds," Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst for the American Immigration Council, tweeted.

The worry that immigrants might spread disease is not unique to Border Patrol officers. In fact, anti-immigrant politicians and public figures often make this claim. As news spread of measles outbreaks in New York, Washington State, and elsewhere in the U.S., Joe Walsh, a former congressman and popular conservative radio personality, tweeted that part of stopping measles outbreaks is addressing undocumented immigration: "If you truly wanted to keep terrible diseases from overtaking our population, you'd secure the border and get a handle on illegal immigration."

The belief that immigrants, undocumented or otherwise, bring disease into the country has been debunked by multiple studies. But, like the continually disproven belief that immigrants bring crime to the country, this idea has existed in the U.S. for more than a hundred years, often aided by racist and nativist propaganda campaigns.

Historical Hysteria Over 'Sick Immigrants'

Since the late 1800s, as scientific and public consciousness regarding the nature of bacteria and other illness began to grow, fears of immigrants bringing disease into the country have been used to bar newcomers.

As immigration to the U.S. skyrocketed at the end of the 19th century, the Immigration Act of 1891 created a broad set of categories of banned immigrants. Alongside "polygamists" and "prostitutes," the act also banned people with "loathsome or contagious disease." Suddenly, the officers at Ellis Island were denying people entry for health reasons.

But have fears of sick immigrants ever been warranted? In 2002, researchers at the University of Michigan completed a historical study they called "The Foreignness of Germs: The Persistent Association of Immigrants and Disease in American Society." They found that the "social perception of the threat of the infected immigrant was typically far greater than the actual danger" throughout the 19th and 20th century: The number of "diseased" immigrants arriving in the country has always been "infinitesimal," they explained, when compared to the total number of newcomers.

Where did these fears come from? The researchers note that, as scientific notions of infectious disease took hold, racist and white supremacist notions of racial hierarchy also began to spread through the U.S. At that time, they write, "it was relatively easy to attribute the weary condition of some immigrants—whether impoverished, malnourished, or suffering from a particular ailment—to their biological inferiority."

During the push to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act and other race-based immigration laws, public officials blamed the spread of diseases on people of color and immigrants. In 1887, a public-health official in San Francisco was not ambiguous in his racist attribution of the city's smallpox epidemic to the city's Chinese population: "I unhesitatingly declare my belief that this cause is the presence in our midst of 30,000 ... unscrupulous, lying and treacherous Chinamen, who have disregarded our sanitary laws, concealed and are concealing their cases of small-pox," he claimed.

Evidence That Immigrants Don't Bring Disease

A landmark study from last year—in which researchers surveyed worldwide immigration patterns as far back 1994—found that immigrants don't bring disease into their new countries. In fact, an increasing immigrant population was found to correlate with healthier host countries.

"There is no evidence to show that migrants are spreading disease. That is a false argument that is used to keep migrants out," Paul Spiegel, a researcher at John Hopkins University and co-author of the study, told NBC News.

Another review of multiple studies of migrant and refugee health in Europe came to a similar conclusion, with an added caveat: Though the risk of migrants and refugees spreading diseases to a host populations was found to be "very low," the risk of disease for refugees themselves was higher, mostly "due to poor living conditions" they faced in European camps.

Unfounded Fears of 'Diseased' Central American Migrants

Though chicken pox has appeared in some shelters along the border, the spread of the disease—which is rarely life-threatening—can be explained more by living conditions than the identity of the migrants themselves.

Conservative news outlets have continually spread fears as far-fetched as Ebola and leprosy crossing the southern border through infected migrants. Such fears peaked during the arrival of the so-called "caravans" last November, but as NPR reported then, the worst illnesses among members of the migrant group amounted to flus and respiratory illnesses.

For many diseases—like measles, diphtheria, and polio—Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Mexico all have higher vaccination rates than the U.S. Even Guatemala, which lags behind the U.S. in average vaccination rates (80 percent compared to the U.S.'s 89 percent), has a higher vaccination rate for measles than many of the areas where outbreaks have occurred in the U.S.

Related