Being barred from another country is not something that Americans are familiar with. For centuries, we have been the ones demonizing foreigners as carriers of infectious disease. And we have been the ones banning immigrants in the name of protecting Americans’ public health. But with coronavirus cases surging in our communities, we must face the hard truth that we are no longer welcome in many places around the world.
This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. Foreigners bring disease to the United States, our politicians have long told us. So if we keep out immigrants, we keep out disease, too. It’s like protecting our borders with those disinfectant wipes that claim to kill 99.9 percent of germs, viruses and bacteria. President Trump clearly believes this. He has repeatedly credited his administration’s Jan. 31 travel ban prohibiting any non-U.S. resident coming from China for saving “millions of U.S. lives.” In February and March, the president justified his preexisting plan for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border “to keep the infection and those carrying the infection from entering our country.”
It’s easy to see why Trump might think this way. After all, our history of tying foreigners to disease has deep roots. In 1793, Germans were blamed for bringing yellow fever, often called the “German flu,” into the country. In Philadelphia, they were quarantined in a “pesthouse” on Province Island. In 1832 and 1849, the Irish were tied to cholera outbreaks in New York City. San Francisco public health officials claimed that Chinese immigrants brought numerous dangerous diseases such as smallpox, bubonic plague and leprosy into the country. Tuberculosis was known as a “Jewish disease.” Newspapers identified Italian immigrants as the source of the polio epidemic that raged along the East Coast during the summer of 1916. Mexicans were described as living in “filth, disease, [and] squalor” and were charged with bringing typhus, plague and smallpox into the United States.
Public health, xenophobia and racism worked together to form a toxic brew throughout U.S. history. In the late 19th century, we began our long practice of banning immigrants on medical grounds. The 1891 Immigration Act allowed the U.S. government to deny entry to any foreigner “suffering from a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease,” such as trachoma, favus, venereal disease, parasitic infection or tuberculosis. By 1903, the U.S. Public Health Service included a new category of excludable diseases and conditions that rendered the immigrant “likely to become a public charge” unable to support themselves.
Some of these “defects” included pregnancy, “poor physique,” “nervous affections,” deformities, varicose veins and poor eyesight. Over the years, more diseases and conditions were added to the government’s no-entry list. Most were chronic, mental or moral conditions, such as “feeblemindedness” and “constitutional psychopathic inferiority,” a coded reference to those engaged in allegedly perverse or degenerate sexual activity or behavior.
These expanded lists meant the United States was able to ban more and more immigrants, especially those considered to be racially undesirable and inferior such as Asians, southern and eastern Europeans, and Mexicans. By 1915, 69 percent of immigrants blocked from entry had been shut out on medical grounds. In the 1920s, discriminatory national-origins quotas were put in place to further restrict immigration from southern, eastern and central Europe and exclude Asians. The U.S. Border Patrol was established.
U.S. lawmakers continued to associate foreigners with dangerous germs, behavior and ideas throughout the 20th century. In 1987, AIDS was added to the list of excludable diseases. Individuals seeking refugee status were tested for HIV, and asylum seekers wishing to stay longer than one year in the United States had to submit to an HIV test. As a disease category, HIV was particularly associated with groups considered sexually deviant (gay people) and racially undesirable (Haitians and Africans). This association led to racist immigration policies such as the quarantining of HIV-positive Haitian immigrants at the U.S. Marine base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in the 1990s. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act, which listed HIV infection as a “communicable disease of public health significance” and banned HIV-positive visiting tourists and foreigners seeking to live in this country. The ban on such foreigners would not be lifted until 2009.
The link between xenophobia and disease remains strong today. Some, like Trump, blame China for the novel coronavirus and consistently use racist language like “the Chinese virus” and “kung flu” to refer to it. Others, like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), claim that the virus was manufactured in laboratories in Wuhan.
As in the past, xenophobia is also driving new immigration policies. In just a few months, the Trump administration has put in place the most sweeping set of immigration restrictions in U.S. history. Not even during the flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919, the Great Depression or both world wars has the United States closed its borders to immigration in the way it is doing today. Immigration has ground to a halt. Refugee admissions have been suspended indefinitely. Asylum has summarily been ended at the U.S.-Mexico border. Restrictions ban the entry of almost every type of immigrant seeking to settle in the United States permanently, including those trying to reunite with families and skilled workers. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has just announced a rule requiring international students to leave the country if their school will be fully online this fall. Initially announced as temporary measures, some of these policies have already been extended indefinitely.
Of course, the United States is far from alone in implementing travel bans, border closures and other restrictions on mobility during the pandemic — as the orders that the E.U. just lifted show. The Migration Policy Institute identified 130 countries that had put some kind of limits in place by March. Still, the United States was the first and only country also to justify immigration restrictions to protect the jobs of its workers, a policy that has received its fair share of criticism from business leaders. And it is now clear that the Trump administration is using the coronavirus pandemic to force through extreme policies that have long been part of its broader anti-immigrant agenda.
Meanwhile, within our borders, the virus is spreading at an alarming and devastating rate, and it’s not because of immigration. A lack of widespread testing and contact tracing combined with botched reopenings and some Americans’ reluctance to wear masks have hampered efforts to control the infection. The United States has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases (nearly 3 million) in the world and is setting daily records for new infections.
The E.U. is right to ban Americans. After centuries of demonizing and restricting immigrants, we are the dangerous, disease-carrying foreigners now.