The Nativist Roots Of Ebola Hysteria

Health workers carry the body of a woman that they suspect died from the Ebola virus CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ABBAS DULLEH
Health workers carry the body of a woman that they suspect died from the Ebola virus CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ABBAS DULLEH

After the first documented case of Ebola in the United States spread from the victim Thomas Duncan to two health workers in Dallas, Texas, some lawmakers proposed that the U.S. halt flights stemming from the three West African countries hardest hit by Ebola. Others conflated the issue of border security with Ebola-stricken terrorists and unaccompanied child migrants crossing the border, recycling an age-old nativism narrative that highlights public health concerns as a reason to heighten national security and to restrict access to U.S. borders.

“Let me emphasize something… Immigration is a part of Ebola,” Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) told a local CBS affiliate last week. He stressed that there was a link between a respiratory illness known as enterovirus showing up in young children in America with the “thousands of residents of Central American countries were found with this illness over a year ago in 2013.”

The craze over Ebola has sparked some lawmakers to call for a travel ban despite public health officials saying that such a policy would hinder efforts to prevent the disease from spreading. One Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) official explained that travel restrictions would make it harder to track people. Other public health officials say that a ban is ill-advised because the policy is only a temporary solution that delays the inevitable; a travel ban would hamper efforts to get critical medical supplies into Western African countries; and it could have lasting economic consequences for the countries that are cut off from the world.

This hasn’t stopped politicians from seizing on inflated Ebola hysteria to fear-monger on their political issues of choice, a trend that has long roots in America’s immigration history. Before Ebola became the main public health concern used by restrictionists to criticize immigration-friendly federal guidelines this year, some lawmakers cited other public health concerns. Local officials refused federal plans to open new facilities to house migrant children in Vassar, Michigan; Hazleton, Pennsylvania; and Murrieta, California, out of concerns of contagious diseases, like tuberculosis, swine flu, leprosy, measles, and chicken pox. Thus far, none of those diseases have become widespread even as migrant children have been placed with families and in other shelters across the country.


Associating immigrants with disease has precedent in previous national public health scares. The 2003 global Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic spurred then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg to eat lunch in New York’s Chinatown as a way to quell public health fears in areas with sizable Asian populations. Ten percent of all flights between Asia and the United States that April were cancelled, while Malaysia imposed a temporary ban on travelers from China, Hong Kong, Canada, Taiwan, and Vietnam. At the time, the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) created 20 quarantine stations located at major ports of entry and land border crossings, prompting one conservative commentator to decry SARS as the next big attack on U.S. soil since September 2001.

In an article about immigration and public health, the immigration-restrictionist group Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) attributed cysticercosis, typhoid, river blindness, malaria, and guinea worm to immigrants. Further, FAIR stated that tuberculosis “has not been wiped out in the United States, mostly due to illegal migration.”

And in one of the darkest chapters of United States immigration detention history in the early 90’s, about 310 Haitian refugees with HIV were imprisoned for about 18 months in the Guantánamo HIV Camp. The move was bitterly ironic considering that they had left Haiti for freedom and safety in America. In his opinion to order the camp’s closure, U.S. District Court Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. stated that the camp was unconstitutional. “The Haitians’ plight is a tragedy of immense proportion, and their continued detainment is totally unacceptable to this court,” he wrote.

America’s xenophobic response to public health crises has some roots in immigration practices from the Ellis Island days. The diagnostic protocol at Ellis Island and other ports of entry often relied on the physical appearance of the immigrant based on the physician’s “gaze.” One doctor in Boston said at the time, “almost no grave organic disease can have a hold on an individual without stamping some evidence of its presence upon the appearance of the patient evident to the eye or hand of the trained observer.” The Johnson Immigration Act of 1924 denied entry into the United States to “any alien afflicted with idiocy, insanity, imbecility, feeble-mindedness, epilepsy, constitutional psychopathic inferiority, chronic alcoholism, tuberculosis in any form, or a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease.” Mandatory detentions were normal for immigrants from Latin America or Asia in the early years, with some health officials saying that it was hard to “read” diseases in the “inscrutable” Asians.

The recent Ebola crisis has thus far not yet expanded beyond a few isolated incidents. Fifty one people, including the fiancee of Duncan, the Ebola victim, had been kept under active monitoring for the past three weeks. All were cleared and released Monday.


Still, fear-mongering tactics persist and are incredibly effective in spawning negative perceptions of immigrants. As academics Laura Seay and Kim Yi Dionn explain in a review of public attitudes to immigration, “prejudice and ethnocentrism can engender support for more restrictive immigration attitudes.” Added to that, Ebola is already part of the national psyche used to portray Africa as a dirty and diseased place, a stereotype that publication Newsweek eagerly paraded on its cover in August.

The hysteria over Ebola has been more widespread than the disease itself. Mississippian parents reacted last week by pulling children out of a school after finding out that the principal had just come back from a trip to Zambia, a country more than 3,000 miles from the closest of the three West African countries (roughly a journey from Los Angeles, California to New York, NY). A teacher from Maine was placed on leave for 21 days, the incubation period of Ebola, after she visited Dallas for a conference. And Americans with West African connections have felt the strongest sting. In Pennsylvania, a teenage football player was “left in tears” after rival players shouted “Ebola” at him.

Even as the Obama administration has taken serious measures to contain Ebola, it’s unlikely that congressional candidates will shy away from using the outbreak in their campaigns. Republicans have historically polled better than Democrats on matters of terrorism and national security, a position that conservative politicians have been keen on equating to unsecured borders in their campaign speeches and ads. With the Obama administration thus far refusing to issue a travel ban, conservatives like Scott Brown (R-NH) have jumped on the opportunity to “close the border,” slamming Democrat candidates for supporting for open borders.