On Immigrants, Diseases, and Fishbowls

A fascinating back-and-forth is going on between Time magazine’s Jeffrey Kluger and Real Clear Science editor Alex Berezow on the highly charged issue of whether we really have anything to fear, in terms of disease, from those Central American immigrant children making their way to the American border.
Author:
Publish date:

A fascinating back-and-forth is going on between Time magazine’s Jeffrey Kluger and Real Clear Science editor Alex Berezow on the highly charged issue of whether we really have anything to fear, in terms of disease, from those Central American immigrant children making their way to the American border (at a much slower rate than a few weeks ago, according to the New York Times).

“Now the nativists and xenophobes have played their nastiest—and least surprising—card: The border must be secured and the immigrants sent back because they are, of course, diseased,” Kruger writes.

Well, at least a few of them very likely are, Berezow replies, noting that “Central America has a vastly higher burden of tuberculosis than the U.S.” He adds that “an increasingly globalized world poses the very realistic threat of exotic diseases coming to the United States.”

Here’s the thing: They’re both right. But they’re also talking past one another. Alex is making his argument on a literal level, while Jeffrey is focusing on the power of disease as a metaphor.

As Jon Stewart recently pointed out, America is a land of immigrants who too often hate and fear the immigrants that come after them. One traditional way of expressing this disdain has been to refer to the newcomers as a health threat. This 2002 paper runs down the sad history, which dates back at least a century.

Reading it, I realized that my grandparents—and, in all probability, the ancestors of both Jeff and Alex—were, upon their arrival in this country, very likely scorned as disease-carrying, sub-human foreigners.

Berezow cautions that “We shouldn't fear or demonize immigrants.” But let’s face it: That’s precisely what the people screaming at these children to stay out of their communities are doing. Their concerns about contagion aren’t 100 percent imaginary, and it’s incorrect to imply that they are. But they’re blown ridiculously out of proportion because scared people need something tangible on which to hang their free-floating fears.

Anti-immigrant protestors are driven by confusion and anxiety about a changing world they can’t control. Such feelings are hard to admit, let alone articulate. It would feel foolish to say "I'm scared" if you have cannot say specifically why; the presumption of disease fills that gap.

So, yes, let’s concede the global spread of disease is a real problem. Let’s also admit that applying the adjective "diseased" to a group of people (especially children!) is an ugly substitute for reasoned discussion.

The only way to get rid of the disease metaphor, I suspect, is to replace it with a better one. Fortunately, historian David McCullough has come up with one. Interviewing him some years back, during an earlier immigration controversy, he expressed exasperation with people who want to restrict immigration.

“It’s how we aerate the fishbowl!” he said. —Tom Jacobs

Related