During a Friday White House press briefing, Trump assured the world that new travel restrictions with Canada and Mexico would stop “a mass global migration that would badly deplete the health-care resources needed for our people.” In his telling, "mass uncontrolled cross-border movement” would create “grave public health consequences,” as if those grave consequences — more than 30,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States — weren’t already within American borders.
Instead of following the lead of governors and mayors who start their daily briefings with data and practical information about the outbreak, Trump has gone down the neo-nativist path. He has his accomplices, such as Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, who made sure to sound like his boss at the Friday briefing when he said that "during this pandemic, a number of health challenges arise when illegal immigrants arrive at our northern and southern borders and are taken into immigration custody.”
Azar’s comments are dangerous on so many levels. For one, there is no proof linking the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the United States with illegal entries of migrants. The first recorded case of the virus in the United States occurred in mid-January. The patient was a man who returned to Washington state after visiting Wuhan, China. Everyone expects xenophobia from the president, but it now appears to be a new part of public health policy. Azar is abusing what actual public health is intended for: to protect the public, even those who are most vulnerable and marginalized.
Indeed, controlling who enters the United States should be part of the containment strategy, but it should always be framed in the context of public health.
Unlike Azar, Anthony Fauci, a doctor and the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has done a better a job of explaining border controls. Fauci is looking at it from the perspective of actual movement, not through the lens of dehumanizing people, accusing “invaders” of bringing infection, which not surprisingly, is a page ripped directly from the country’s xenophobic past.
The latest language linking the virus to immigrants is exactly what the anti-immigration lobby has been pushing for years. On Sunday, the Trump campaign sent a message to supporters: “Pres. Trump is making your safety his #1 priority. That’s why we’re closing BORDERS to illegals.” Migrants will always bring disease. Migrants will destroy America. We need a new protector to make us great again. Enter Trump, and now a global pandemic has become the xenophobes’ golden ticket. Never mind all the facts that point to how immigrants have benefited this country enormously.
Don’t expect Trump or other members of his administration to change their thinking. They are going all in. It’s as if these daily press briefings are becoming free campaign ads. Don’t be surprised when we start seeing the “I stopped the virus because I stopped the migrants” MAGA ads. Calls of being “all in this together” sound hollow, even with the Trump administration’s announcement that undocumented individuals would not be at risk if they seek coronavirus testing.
We must be vigilant for dangerous xenophobic language, now more than ever. Trump is making his response to the novel coronavirus (which he insists on calling the “Chinese” virus to deflect blame and stoke xenophobia) a political issue. He is returning to what worked for him so well in the past. But we can’t have him distract us with hate and division — the country can’t afford that right now in the face of a global pandemic.