This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series
By Larissa Fluegel, MD, MHS, and Sean A. Valles, PhD
The U.S. COVID-19 pandemic summer surge has inspired a public search for answers as to why wide vaccine availability has not been sufficient to prevent a new wave of infections. Certain answers are plausible, such as blaming the surge on some combination of the more infectious delta variant spread, vaccination rates remaining too low on average and excessively low for some populations, a relaxation of formal disease control restrictions, as well as more nuanced informal social habits such as diminished mask-wearing, more indoor parties, etc. Yet others cast blame onto a much less plausible target: immigrants.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis blames President Joe Biden for being too lax on the southern U.S. border immigration enforcement, suggesting that Biden has been “helping [to] facilitate” the pandemic. Governor Greg Abbott of Texas took things further, ordering that state law enforcement could “begin pulling over vehicles whose drivers are transporting migrants who pose a risk of carrying COVID-19.” Both of these responses to the pandemic spread are unethical, incoherent, and ineffectual. Accusations against Latin American immigrants are unethical and misguided.
For many reasons, blaming those immigrants crossing the southern U.S. border for negative health outcomes is problematic. Such targeted blame is dehumanizing to immigrants—it promotes negative stereotypes that perpetuate discrimination, mistreatment and health disparities, and by extension, it is detrimental to non-immigrants’ health. Moreover, it is a form of blame shifting that prevents authorities and the public from effectively taking responsibility for community-wide problems.
Blaming immigrants is dehumanizing
There is a long history of dehumanizing immigrants to the U.S., although such dehumanization is generally done selectively. Immigrants such as Charlize Theron and Albert Einstein are treasured, while others are despised for having the “wrong” skin color, accent, occupations, and so on. Dehumanizing and targeting immigrants has been part and parcel of U.S. history, from 19th century church-burning riots that terrorized Irish immigrants, and the overtly racist Chinese Exclusion Act, to current cases of medical abuse and neglect in migrant detention centers. Philosopher David Livingstone Smith traces these sorts of systemic cruelties to a process of dehumanization in which we find ways of convincing ourselves to think of certain groups of people as somehow less than human. To convince ourselves we seek justifications such as depicting immigrants as vermin infecting or invading a country. According to Livingstone Smith, such depictions then give us permission to act aggressively against those groups and to “exclude the target of aggression from the moral community.”
In sum, we find ways to give ourselves permission to dismiss the ethics of how we treat certain groups of people. With such misplaced permission, we decide that certain groups, in this case select immigrants, don’t count as fellow humans worth caring about, and so abuse doesn’t really count as abuse. It’s this sort of misguided logic that also explains Governors Abbott and DeSantis’ school mask requirement bans. Paradoxically, their purported attempt to reign-in government restrictions on individuals simultaneously reveals disregard for the ways in which harsh immigration enforcement strategies negatively impact the lives of immigrants.
Blaming immigrants promotes unrealistic, unhealthy negative stereotypes
Blaming immigrants promotes negative stereotypes that perpetuate discrimination, social mistreatment, and unjust health disparities. Since early in the pandemic, anti-Asian racism and xenophobia mixed in with COVID-19 politics has led to a worldwide phenomenon of hate crimes against anyone appearing to be of Asian descent, and vicious expressions of misguided blame directed at anyone from the same vague region as where the pandemic originated. Historically, and erroneously, people in the U.S. have associated immigrants with human disease and contagion. Immigration authorities have long scrutinized immigrant health when deciding who can enter or remain in the U.S. Additionally, there is a false perception that immigrant illnesses are predominantly acquired before entry to the U.S.; it is instead most often the case that immigrants tend to struggle with worsening health as they spend more time adopting U.S. cultural norms, including unhealthy eating habits.
Stereotypes about “unsanitary” immigrants represent cruel and unjustified blame shifting. For example, consider meat processing plants which have been hot spots for COVID-19 outbreaks. Staffed predominantly by an immigrant workforce, those workers face abusive and unsanitary working conditions (an open secret in the industry for over a century) that foster disease outbreak. Laying blame for this suffering on immigrant workers, or immigration generally, is a horrendous ethical mistake. Statements by public figures like Governors Abbott and DeSantis contribute to morally skewed views about immigrant health.
Unhealthy negative stereotypes hurt people and cost all Americans a lot of money
Another pragmatic consideration is how those immigrants who do fall ill interface with the U.S. health care system. Negative stereotypes about immigrants among health care providers lead to substandard and/or improper care. In fact, the anticipation of being mistreated coupled with fear among those with an undocumented immigration status serve to dissuade immigrants from seeking needed care. Such fears might even discourage some from getting the COVID-19 vaccine. In this way, blaming immigrants contributes to worsening the pandemic. (A related irony is that nearly 1 in 3 doctors are themselves immigrants.)
There is a public health concern to this sequence. Delaying or avoiding care harms immigrants as well as those around them. To avert transmission, contagious diseases need to be treated in a timely manner. Not doing so leads to an underestimation of actual disease distribution and burden. A correct estimation is necessary to determine the right amount of resources and timely measures necessary to contain them. It is a waste of public resources to have those in need use emergency rooms for care that, if identified and delivered in a timely manner, could have been averted before the situation worsened. Part of the motivation for the Affordable Care Act was to increase access to regular necessary care, yet undocumented immigrants were excluded from benefitting from the Act, despite the fact that providing coverage would have improved public health and probably saved the public money as well. For example, consider strep throat, a condition that is easily treatable with inexpensive antibiotics. Left untreated, strep throat can get complicated and potentially cause serious long-term heart problems. Untreated strep throat might drive a person to seek care in an emergency department. Yet another example is an untreated dental cavity that might lead to a dental abscess or a deep skin infection of the mouth and neck, again possibly resulting in an emergency room visit. Once there, correct diagnosis would require fluid cultures and expensive MRI or CT imaging. The cost of delayed care is borne by all of us. Some combination of insurance companies, hospitals, or government pay those excess fees, passing along costs to everyone else.
It is unfortunately fashionable across the U.S. and Europe to blame immigrants for social problems. Economic and social problems are quickly blamed on immigrants. Conversely, the available evidence points to immigrants being economically and socially beneficial to their respective new country.
We, the authors, come to this issue as people who have committed their professional lives to making healthcare and health policy more humane—seeking to help our future physicians and our colleagues treat patients as complex human beings deserving of care, rather than revenue streams to be maximized. Similarly, we see immigration discussions falling prey to the same mistake so common in healthcare, wherein powerful decision-makers, such as politicians, lose sight of their shared humanity with the people whose lives depend on them. We need to demand better from our political leaders and importantly, we need to speak out when politicians dehumanize immigrants.
Larissa Fluegel, MD, MHS, is an Assistant Professor with the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice and the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University where she teaches social context of clinical decisions.
Sean A. Valles, PhD, is Associate Professor and Director of the Michigan State University Center for Bioethics and Social Justice. He is author of the 2018 book Philosophy of Population Health: Philosophy for a New Public Health Era (Routledge Press).
Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The authors will respond to all comments made by Thursday, September 2, 2021. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.
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