Steve Chapman

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who has helped in bringing some of the kids to Dallas to be housed, told The Dallas Morning News, "The diseases that the children carry are, for the most part, diseases that go through every elementary school in (Dallas Independent School District) every year. And the more serious diseases are the diseases we treat at Parkland (hospital) every day."

The warnings of incoming microbes do not stem from a mere abundance of caution about public health. There is more at work. The alarms sounded by anti-immigration forces are part of a long pattern of accusing immigrants of exposing clean, healthy Americans to filth and disease.

American University historian Alan Kraut writes that often, "native-born Americans' fear of disease from abroad became a rationale for an equally great and preexisting prejudice." When the Irish arrived, they were accused of bringing cholera. European Jews were seen as carriers for tuberculosis. Asians were alleged vessels for hookworm.

The Immigration Act of 1891 barred entry to anyone with "a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease." Even then, the risk was mostly imaginary. In the ensuing years, only 3 percent of arriving immigrants were turned away because of physical or mental illness.

Race, of course, plays a role in our fears. If we were warned of blue-eyed Canadians coming over the bridge from Windsor, Ontario, with mild but contagious skin disorders, the warnings might not resonate. But dark-skinned foreigners have long evoked special discomfort among many Americans.

The concern about foreign-borne illness is not completely unfounded, but why is it only immigrants who stimulate intense anxiety? If there are diseases endemic to the nations south of us, we don't need immigrants to transport them.

After all, more than four million Americans travel to Central or South America each year, and another 20 million visit Mexico. We somehow survive whatever germs they bring back.

The insistence on stigmatizing migrating foreigners because they are not exempt from normal health troubles is an old disorder. But it's entirely homegrown.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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