by elle | 4/28/2009 02:35:00 PM
ETA please see Nezua's post at The Sanctuary

I'm preparing to be whipped into a frenzy about the breakout of a mutated strain of swine flu. What I wasn't prepared for was how quickly the "blame the dirty, diseased immigrants" meme would take hold. This, despite the facts that 1)the source of the outbreak could be a CAFO in Mexico owned by our very own Smithfield Farms and 2)"the US was already looking into cases within our own currently designated borders," as noted by Nezua.

But those facts mean nothing to more rabid right-wingers. From Media Matters:
During the April 24 edition of his nationally syndicated radio show, Michael Savage stated: "Make no mistake about it: Illegal aliens are the carriers of the new strain of human-swine avian flu from Mexico."*


"[C]ould this be a terrorist attack through Mexico? Could our dear friends in the radical Islamic countries have concocted this virus..."


"How do you protect yourself? What can you do? I'll tell you what I'm going to do, and I don't give a damn if you don't like what I'm going to say. I'm going to have no contact anywhere with an illegal alien, and that starts in the restaurants."

During the April 27 edition of his nationally syndicated radio show, Neal Boortz asked: "[W]hat better way to sneak a virus into this country than give it to Mexicans? Right? I mean, one out of every 10 people born in Mexico is already living up here, and the rest are trying to get here... ."

In an April 25 blog post... syndicated columnist and Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin suggested that the outbreak was due to the United States' "uncontrolled immigration... 9/11 didn't convince the open-borders zealots to put down their race cards and confront reality. Maybe the threat of their sons or daughters contracting a deadly virus spread from south of the border to their Manhattan prep schools* will."
"Mexican@s & Latinos already had a hell of a time w/all the hate," Nezua wrote on Twitter.** This flu outbreak gives right wing pundits an opportunity to ramp it up.

Early signs of what the outcome could be? Already, this flu is being framed as "more of one or another kind of Mexicanicky “spillover.” At Vivir Latino, Maegan suggested that, "swine flu is the new racial profiling," pointing to this summary of Homeland Security Secreatary Napolitano's instructions:
Secretary Janet Napolitano also said border agents have been directed to begin passive surveillance of travelers from affected countries, with instructions to isolate anyone who appears actively ill with suspected influenza.
Then there is the story of Israeli Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman's suggestion that the flue be renamed the "Mexican Flu." The CDC has advised against non-essential travel to Mexico--and while I can understand how that might be practical, I cannot help thinking how this advisory will be perceived in a country where Mexico is constructed as hopeless, corrupt, and inadequate.

Reading Maegan's and Nez's tweets on this made me reflect on the long history within the U.S. of categorizing "undesirable" immigrants as dirty and diseased. They were undesirable, of course, because of their racial/ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious differences from the WASP-y mainstream. In the 19th century, much of the anti-immigrant sentiment focused on the Irish and Asians (particularly the Chinese); in the early 20th century, "undesirable" expanded to include the "new" immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, the disabled, and most Asians.

Part of characterizing these immigrants as undesirable was claiming, in no uncertain terms, that they represented a danger to Americans and the "American way of life." For example, here is George Frederick Keller's (in)famous depiction of what the Statue of Liberty's counterpart in San Francisco Bay might look like:

And I borrowed this from here a while ago to show my students:

A few years ago, I wrote briefly about some works that talk about the old "immigrants carry filth and disease" meme:
American citizens tend to impose their own standards of housekeeping and "cleanliness" on immigrants and judge them deficient. Nayan Shah, for example, posits that Americans considered San Francisco’s Chinatown dirty, overcrowded, and unacceptable. From there, Chinese were cast as health hazards, rife with disease and in need of police and medical supervision. Taking this cue, some African Americans in San Francisco complained that, “on the streets of the Chinese section of town… one could find filth actually personified and the stench which arises and penetrates the olfactory nerves is something perfectly horrible.”

Mexican immigrants, too, became a perceived threat to American health and hygiene. According to Howard Markel and Alexandra Minna, the porosity of the border worried U.S. health officials in the early twentieth century. In response to a typhus epidemic in Mexico’s interior in 1915, the U.S. Public Health Service quarantined Mexican immigrants and treated them as if they were “vermin-infested.” Along the border, Mexican immigrants were subjected to invasive, humiliating examinations before they were "certified" disease free. That quarantine extended until the late 1930s, long after the epidemic had passed, a testament to the American perception of Mexicans as infectious germ carriers.***
And now, the "new" immigrants of the 21st century--so labeled because they came largely after 1965 and because, more recently, they are traveling to new settlement areas****--are facing the same attacks. Of course, part of the reason is that they share the label of "undesirable" that I defined above. This is a distinction that, as Melissa McEwan convincincly argues, is becoming synonymous with "immigrant":
In between the disparate uses and meanings of "immigrant" and "ex-pat" (expatriate) falls everything that underlines the racism, classism, and xenophobia of the immigration debate in America.

White, (relatively) wealthy, and English-speaking immigrants are ex-pats, with intramural rugby leagues and dues-drawing pub clubs and summer festivals set to the distant trill of bagpipes.

Non-white, poor, and non-natively English-speaking immigrants are just immigrants.

Ex-pats are presumed to have come to America after a revelation that their countries, in which any white person would be happy to live, are nonetheless not as good as America.

Immigrants are presumed to have come to America because their countries are shit-holes.

Ex-pats are romantic and adventurous, with wonderful accents and charming slang.

Immigrants are dirty and desperate, with the nefarious intent of getting their stupid language on all our signs.
John Higham posited that nativism ebbs and flows, and we seem to be at a high period (and seem to have been frozen here for well over a decade). Given that, the fact that anti-immigrant sentiment tends to rise during periods of economic hardship, and the long-standing practice of associating certain immigrants with germs and disease, I don't expect the right-wing attacks to stop.

That doesn't make them any less disturbing, however.


Many thanks to Nezua, Maegan, and Liss, for pointing me to links and for their own words which helped me work through my thoughts.

Jill and The America's Voice Blog, whose posts I also consulted.
*According to Media Matters, "Officials think they [some NYC high school students] started getting sick after some students returned from the spring break trip to Cancun." Thus the disease was brought to NY by returning tourists, not immigrants.

**Deeky expands on that sentiment here.

***Discussed works:
Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

Arnold Shankman, “Black on Yellow: Afro-Americans View Chinese Americans 1850-1935,” Phylon 39, no. 1 (1978): 3.

Howard Markel and Alexandra Minna Stern, “The Foreignness of Germs: The Persistent Association of Immigrants and Disease in American Society,” The Millbank Quarterly 80, no. 4 (2002): 765.

Similar characterizations were made of Slovak immigrants, M. Mark Stolarik, “From Field to Factory: the Historiography of Slovak Immigration to the United States,” International Migration Review 10, no. 1 (1976): 96-97.

****Most of my knowledge of new settlement areas comes from my work studying the poultry processing industry, so I'll point you to the works of
William Kandel, Emilio Parrado, and Leon Fink.



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Blogger Ahistoricality on 4/28/2009 8:21 PM:

The recent outbreak only ramps up the "diseased immigrant" meme a little bit, frankly: there's been a steady drumbeat on that score for the last ten years or more, including misinformation about leprosy. The "Minuteman" border patrol movement and the anti-immigrant groups have been pushing this hard. (see Orcinus)

Just as a side note, by the way: the Israeli minister's insistence that "swine" is offensive to Jews so we should stigmatize Mexicans instead (I'm paraphrasing, but that's what he meant) is absurd. The word "swine" doesn't mean anything inherently offensive to Jews (or Muslims, who he included, and never let it be said that Israel didn't stand up for its Muslim citizens and neighbors!), as long as you don't make them eat some against their will (some of us are just fine with it).

Don't get me wrong: I think there's some real value to the idea that eating is an act of holiness which deserves our attention, care, consideration. But the idea that certain animals are unclean by nature and that any contact with them is taboo.... well, that's just atavistic nonsense.