COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, is the latest disease the nativist movement has politicized to demonize immigrants.
But this xenophobic tactic has been used in the past and debunked by medical professionals.
In the midst of the current pandemic, anti-immigrant hate groups such as the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and VDARE haven’t missed an opportunity to conflate immigration and public health.
The late John Tanton, the architect of the modern nativist movement, founded CIS in 1985. Although the anti-immigrant think tank has attempted to push back on its ties to Tanton, it continues his legacy of circulating the writing of white nationalist and anti-immigrant writers. FAIR was created by Tanton in 1979 and is the anti-immigrant movement’s main lobbying organization.
These anti-immigrant hate groups have access to important policy circles in the White House. Hatewatch has reported extensively on how Stephen Miller, the overseer of the administration’s immigration policy, shared an article from the white nationalist VDARE website with Breitbart reporters in 2015.
Additionally, former staff members of CIS and FAIR have transitioned to jobs within the Trump Administration, mainly at critical federal agencies.
Jon Feere, a senior advisor to ICE since 2017, served as CIS’ legal policy analyst for approximately a decade. Feere has openly advocated for the abolishment of the 14th amendment, also known as birthright citizenship, and once provided an interview to the antisemitic newspaper American Free Press.
Similarly, Julie Kirchner, who last served as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman, has reportedly been tapped by the administration to help oversee the establishment of a newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS) office charged with handling civil rights complaints from detainees in DHS detention centers. Prior to these roles, Kirchner served as the executive director of FAIR from 2007 to 2015.
Peter Brimelow started VDARE in 1999. The website has operated as a publishing space for white nationalists, anti-immigrant extremists and eugenicists. SPLC has listed VDARE as a hate group since 2003 because of its consistent publication of racist rhetoric and sporadic dissemination of antisemitic conspiracy theories.
In an email response to Hatewatch, Brimelow denied knowledge of the existence of an anti-immigrant movement, shared VDARE articles about the coronavirus and suggested that the current pandemic is going “easier” for him because he does not “live in an immigration-impacted area.”
Although the nativist movement is devoting the majority of its efforts to linking immigration to the coronavirus, Terry McGovern says there is no evidence that migrants are great carriers of disease. In fact, from her time as a member of the UCL-Lancet Commission on Migration and Health, McGovern and other health experts concluded: “After exhaustive research, we found no evidence that immigrants were greater carriers of infectious disease, in fact, we found that they were generally healthier than host populations.”
McGovern currently serves as Harriet and Robert H. Heilbrunn Professor and Chair of the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health and the Director of the Program on Global Health Justice and Governance at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.
In the last month, CIS has published approximately 44 blogs where COVID-19 is either the main subject or mentioned. In “ICE Should Use Its Publicist to Discourage Illegal Immigration,” published March 26, CIS Fellow David North suggested that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) should use the story of one of its detainees testing positive for the coronavirus to discourage illegal immigration.
“There should be a picture of a downcast young man in prison hospital garb, and, preferably, hand-cuffed,” North wrote. “There should be a detailed description of his health, his fever and other symptoms, and perhaps some speculation about the possibility of his death.”
In a March 31 article in National Review magazine, Mark Krikorian, CIS Executive Director, argued the current pandemic has “exposed” the United States’ overreliance on “imported labor to pick fruits and vegetables.” To end this “dependence,” Krikorian offered policy solutions long sought by the anti-immigrant movement, including enforcing the border, abolishing, or limiting, specific types of visas, and requiring employers to institute E-Verify, a federal electronic system which notifies employers of the immigration status of potential employees.
FAIR dedicated its March 23 episode of its staff-led podcast series, “Understanding Immigration,” to “Understanding Coronavirus and Immigration.” The podcast included Preston Huennekens, the government relations associate, Spencer Raley, a senior researcher and Matthew Tragesser, the communications specialist.
Early into the podcast, Huennekens used xenophobic fearmongering to conflate immigration and the ongoing pandemic, claiming, “Immigration is probably the first line of defense against communicable diseases such as COVID-19.” Raley asserted that President Trump is “supposed to be taking care of the people who elected you [the President] into office.” Matthew Tragesser offered a politically convenient conclusion for what he believes the current health crisis has exposed: “Uncontrolled mass immigration can really bring serious consequences and it sucks it’s taken a pandemic for them [opponents of the President’s nativist immigration agenda] to realize that.”
VDARE’s website has been completely consumed by COVID-19 posts, most of which are steeped in nativist alarmism and conspiracy. The white nationalist website published 33 blogs on the topic between April 5 and April 11, according to its latest coronavirus round up. From January to April 5, 2020, Hatewatch estimates VDARE has published about 232 coronavirus-related pieces, bringing its total to 265.
One VDARE contributor, “Federale,” whose image is a photo of Francisco Franco, the Spanish fascist leader who considered Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini his allies, devoted a blog to peddling conspiracy theories.
In his piece, “Federale” cites a PBS report about ICE detainees being released in Louisiana due to various concerns, one of them being coronavirus. However, “Federale” portrayed this as part of a larger government conspiracy: “The Kung Flu is nothing more than an excuse to release illegal alien[s] into the population, and for them to delay or hide from deportation.”
History of politicizing disease to bash immigration
In Fall 2003, The Social Contract, an anti-immigrant quarterly journal published by The Social Contract Press (TSCP), ran an article titled “Immigration and Public Health.” The article was written by Wayne Lutton, the longtime editor of TSCP.
TSCP is housed by U.S. Inc., a Tanton-founded organization which provides financial support to anti-immigrant groups. For decades, TSCP used The Social Contract’s pages to print articles by anti-immigrant extremists, white nationalists, conspiracy theorists and eugenicists.
Lutton began working for Tanton at TSCP in the early 1990s and cultivated relationships with such hate groups as the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) and the antisemitic Institute of Historical Review.
While working as an editor at Tanton’s TSCP, Lutton joined the editorial advisory board of the Citizens Informer, the CCC’s racist tabloid. Dylann Roof, the man convicted of murdering nine people in an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, cited CCC as his introduction to white nationalism.
Lutton’s article blamed “mass immigration” for the presence of new and old diseases in the U.S. “Mass immigration has contributed to a new threat to our nation’s health. Diseases once practically eradicated are breaking out again,” he wrote. “Tropical diseases, previously unheard of in the United States, but prevalent in Third World countries, are appearing.”
Beyond the assumed health risk immigrants supposedly pose, Lutton also raised the potential economic cost. Lutton assessed, “exposure to imported illnesses not only endangers Americans’ physical well-being, it cost taxpayers billions of dollars.” He follows the assertion with, “the total dollar costs for health services provided to foreigners nationwide is not available.”
“Americans have worked hard since the founding of this nation to provide a clean, safe environment for themselves and their families,” Lutton summarized. “All of that progress is being threatened because federal officials refuse to curtail mass immigration. Unless swift action is taken, the United States is in danger of experiencing a public health calamity.”
Stoking fears about the Ebola virus
In 2014, conservative public officials and anti-immigrant groups claimed that undocumented immigrants arriving to the U.S. via the southern border carried the Ebola Virus. Nativist and opponents to then-President Obama’s immigration agenda generated this false narrative for political reasons, not to safeguard public health.
Then-Congressman Phil Gingrey, R-Georgia, wrote a letter to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conveying his concern about “reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis.” Gingrey served as a member of the House Immigration Reform Caucus whose members attended FAIR’s “Hold Their Feet to the Fire” media event in 2009.
Medical professionals quickly rebuffed Gingrey’s assertions as being based on “innuendo and fear-mongering.” Gingrey himself, in comments made to NBC News on July 15, 2014, admitted: “I can’t tell you specifically that there were any cases of Ebola, I don’t think there were.”
Nativist hate groups also used the Ebola outbreak to advance their agenda and spread xenophobic alarmism.
At VDARE, Thomas Martel discussed how the Ebola crisis would “make America the Quarantine Camp of Saints.” The Camp of Saints, which was recommended by Stephen Miller to Breitbart News when he worked as an aide to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, is a book beloved by anti-immigrant extremists and white nationalists because of its depiction of “white genocide,” the idea that white people of European heritage are being systematically displaced in the Western world.
Martel’s blog, “Will Ebola Make America the Quarantine Camp of the Saints?” written on March 11, 2014, warned: “If it spirals out of control, the Ebola crisis will reveal whether the historic American nation has the will to survive. If we haven’t already gotten the message that mass immigration is destroying the country, perhaps a disease that makes people bleed from every orifice will convey the message.”
On Oct. 7, 2014, CIS’ Mark Krikorian took to Fox News to repeat unverified claims of West African migrants, primarily from countries affected by Ebola, entering the U.S. illegally through the U.S.-Mexico border. During the segment, Krikorian said, “It’s not like he [a Liberian man who legally entered the U.S. via air travel and later tested positive for Ebola, eventually dying from the disease] snuck in from Mexico, and there are, mind you, significant number of people from these Ebola infected countries illegally crossing and being caught by Border Patrol.”
Experts consistently pushed back on the narrative that migrants were bringing Ebola to the U.S. via the southern border. In October 2014, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stated that it was very unlikely that migrants entering the U.S. via Mexico were carrying Ebola virus because there was no outbreak in Latin America.
In fact, the U.S. reported zero cases of Ebola by November 2014, approximately 3 months after the anti-immigrant hysteria began.
The swine flu
Similar to Ebola, in 2009, the anti-immigrant movement disparaged immigrants coming to the U.S., both legally and illegally, as carriers of the H1N1 virus strain, also known as swine flu. For nativists, the 2009 outbreak of swine flu in Mexico offered them another opportunity to politicize immigration, demonize immigrants, and stir up panic.
Frosty Wooldridge, a hardened nativist and white nationalist who previously served as a member of FAIR’s advisory board, a fellow at the anti-immigrant hate group Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS), and has written articles for TSCP, published a vitriolic article which blamed immigrants’ culture and habits for the emergence of swine flu, and other diseases, in the U.S.
In “Swine Flu: Immigration, Death, Disease & Consequences for Americans,” which was written on April 28, 2009, Wooldridge provided an alphabet soup of diseases he argued undocumented immigrants spread. From tuberculosis to hepatitis A to leprosy and swine flu, Wooldridge viewed disease as an inherent element of immigrants’ cultural norms.
Wooldridge concluded: “The recent outbreak of Swine flu in Mexico and over 40 cases in the United States exposes yet another aspect of mass immigration into the United States. Such outbreaks of diseases stem from cultures that lack personal hygiene, personal health habits and standards of disease prevention.”
Michelle Malkin, a right-wing firebrand who has been featured on several CIS panels on immigration, contended that immigrants and “uncontrolled immigration” led to the spread of disease.
In an April 25, 2009, personal blog about swine flu, she wrote: “I’ve blogged for years about the spread of contagious diseases from around the world into the U.S. as a result of uncontrolled immigration.” She admonished “open-border zealots” for not adopting a zero-tolerance immigration policy after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. She finished the post with a ghastly suggestion: “Maybe the threat of their sons or daughters contracting a deadly virus spread from south of the border to their Manhattan prep schools will.”
At VDARE, Patrick J. Buchanan, a nativist ideologue who unsuccessfully ran for president in 1992, added swine flu to an extensive list of diseases he thought undocumented immigrants either brought to the U.S. or reintroduced.
Buchanan, who once wrote an exclusive for American Free Press, a publication produced by longtime antisemite and Holocaust denier Willis Carto, argued that the U.S. “accepted an invasion of illegal aliens that brought 12 to 20 million into the country.” He continued, “with them has come a raft of diseases never seen here before, or eradicated years ago.”
After besmirching undocumented immigrants as hosts of over half-a-dozen diseases, Buchanan dehumanized them further, writing, “even bed bugs have invaded half the American states.”
Another disease the anti-immigrant movement has repeatedly used to stigmatize immigrants is tuberculosis.
During the 2014 humanitarian crisis of largely undocumented children, many of whom were fleeing violence in Central America, arriving to the U.S.-Mexico border, the nativist movement smeared these children as disease-carrying immigrants, terrorists or drug cartel members.
At VDARE, Brenda Walker, a regular contributor to the white nationalist website since 2000 and a propagator of the Aztlan conspiracy theory, which claims that immigrants migrate to the U.S. out of a desire to colonize the county and not to work, wrote a July 7, 2014, piece titled “Open Borders Admit Tuberculosis and The Government Is Transporting It Throughout The County.”
Walker’s piece highlighted a Fox radio show which “described the public health crisis boiling up from the thousands of illegal aliens swarming over the open border.” She warned readers about how easily tuberculosis can be spread and exaggeratedly asked, “so will American youngsters need to wear respiratory masks when they go back to school in the fall because of diseased alien kids forced into US classrooms?”
Laura Ingraham, the FOX News host of The Laura Ingraham Show, contributed to the xenophobic hysteria about migrants bringing tuberculosis into the U.S. On her June 23, 2014 show, Ingraham’s stated, “The government spreads the illegal immigrants across the country, and the disease is spread across the country. Who gets the blame here?”
During her Sept. 18, 2014, show, Ingraham doubled down on promoting the myth of undocumented migrant children bringing tuberculosis into the U.S. and the fictional public health risk involved.
Since the outbreak of coronavirus, President Trump and other senior public officials have strategically referred to coronavirus as the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus. Tucker Carlson and Pamela Geller, two prominent right-wing media figures, have circulated conspiracy theories blaming Chinese culinary customs as the reason for the beginning of the coronavirus, a bigoted anti-Asian trope peddled in the past.
According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities in the U.S. have been the target of threats and harassment in more than 44 instances. The Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) warned of an uptick in hate crimes against Asian Americans, “based on the assumption that a portion of the US public will associate COVID-19 with China and Asian American populations.”
The discriminatory association between the coronavirus and Asian American populations, which is irresponsibly reinforced by the use of the racialized terms like “Chinese Virus,” nearly proved fatal for an Asian American family of four in Midland, Texas.
At a Sam’s Club on March 14, a man stabbed several members of the family, including children ages 2 and 6, allegedly because of his belief that they were “Chinese” and “infecting people with coronavirus.” The injuries caused by the stabbing were non-fatal, and the alleged assailant, Jose Gomez III, was apprehended and charged with three counts of attempted capital murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
While the xenophobic and racist opportunism demonstrated by the nativist movement is disturbing, the real-world consequences of their political grandstanding are much graver.
Photo illustration of (from left) Mark Krikorian, Julie Kirchner and Peter Brimelow by SPLC