How disease is used to deny entry at US borders

The World
A woman hold a sign that reads, "stop kidnaping and imprisoning kids."

A Federal Court in San Diego will hear a lawsuit on September 20th brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement on the issue of family separation at the US-Mexico border.

Even though the “zero tolerance” policy came to an end in June last year, the ACLU has documented more than 950 instances of children being taken away from their parents since then. An executive order signed by US President Donald Trump allowed for separation when the parent posed a risk to the child, but the ACLU argues that ICE is overextending its power in some cases, among them, a Honduran father who was separated from his three daughters because he is HIV positive.

Gabriela Soto Laveaga, a science historian at Harvard University, spoke to The World's Marco Werman about the intersection of disease and immigration. What stood out for her in the Honduran case, she said, was the fact that a person's communicable disease such as HIV was being used to deny him entry to the United States, something that historically has taken a political connotation. 

“If we look back in history, how we define communicable disease and who has these diseases really shifts and it's much more than an objective medical diagnosis,” Soto Laveaga said. “It's really linked to political, ethnic and racial groups.”

Marco: Historically, if we look back at the big waves of migration starting in the early 20th century, when it comes to health, how have immigrants been perceived and treated?

Gabriela Soto LaVeaga: If we look at Ellis Island and Angel Island, public health has always been one of the parameters for immigration. The United States Public Health Service, since the late 19th century, was sort of in agreement with immigration. What they were doing was basically trying to weed out any serious diseases or mental health issues, but there were so many people arriving that these were quick checks. If we shift our gaze to the Mexico-U.S. border, it's a completely different story. Almost exactly 100 years ago, instead of detention centers, what we had were places of sanitation. All Mexicans coming into the United States had to be deloused. What this meant was that men and women were stripped naked, they would go into these rooms where they would be inspected to make sure they had no lice, all of their clothing and belongings were put into steamers and it had to do with this racialization and a medicalization of Mexican bodies as opposed to other immigrant bodies. It was this notion of really creating a differentiation between who was considered an "alien" and a dangerous body. When we talk about what's happening right now in these detention spaces with regard to public health, this has a very long history in the United States.

Related: Migrants have been called health risks for centuries. They aren't. 

More generally, how does race play into this?

I think when we talk about race and fear of disease and immigrants, there's always been this concern that immigrants are bringing in certain immigrant-like diseases. The biggest case that comes to mind is of course what happened in the 1980s with Haitians in HIV/AIDS. The idea was that Haitian bodies were carriers of a specific disease and could be denied entry into the United States because of their national origin.

So that was kind of on the front edge of HIV/AIDS and people were not that informed. Is that part of the problem?

Exactly, this was at the very beginning when it was believed that it was a homosexual disease and a Haitian disease and that, of course, as we know, is discredited. But it's a clear example of how certain groups are targeted in certain diseases or attributed to certain groups.

Related: A father with HIV was separated from his daughters at the border 

Some of the language used around these health issues — invasion, scourge, lice-ridden — what's the legacy of that kind of concentrated focus on the US-Mexico border?

We are seeing [that] the legacy of these historical attempts to racialize these bodies is significantly different. This detention of bodies is not new, it's just taken on a very different hue.

Related: Public charge rule has history of ‘racial exclusion,’ says immigration historian 

Aren't some policies responding, indeed, to outbreaks of these new diseases?

Absolutely. What we see [was that] there was a lot of cooperation in the mid-20th century between the United States public health service and the Mexican public health service, precisely because bacteria and viruses do not respect international borders. So you really need a binational organization. But what happens in the U.S.-Mexico border is distinct in the sense that it begins to target a national group as potential carriers of specific diseases with certain traits — certain traits like criminality that we're seeing with the political rhetoric of today.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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