The (still) unbearable foreignness of germs

(Part 2)

Hi all, 

Hope you continue to be well during These Trying Times. 

In my last edition, I explored the association between immigrants and disease, and why we, as a society, have historically blamed the spread of illness on communities that may themselves be its most affected victims. In this one, I am focusing on how that trope played out at the southern border of the United States. 

The U.S.-Mexico border is, of course, a real place with real people — as rich, complex, and flawed as any other real place with real people. But in the American imagination, it’s also a construct steeped in myths from the country’s past, as historian Greg Grandin writes in his book The End of the Myth.

Specifically, the border represents an edge of the American global empire — a frontier beyond which lies an imagined world that is yet to be civilized. That seductive idea has allowed “the United States to avoid a true reckoning with its social problems, such as economic inequality, racism, crime and punishment, and violence,” Grandin writes.

Readings: 

Molina’s paper focuses on Mexicans migrants who traversed the southern border to work in the United States in the early 21st century. Upon entering the United States, they were made to undergo painful baths and humiliating inspections based on the assumption that they imported disease. 

She writes in the abstract:

Disease, or just the threat of it, marked Mexicans as foreign, just as much as phenotype, native language, accent, or clothing. A focus on race rendered other factors and structures, such as poor working conditions or structural inequalities in health care, invisible. This attitude had long-term effects on immigration policy, as well as on how Mexicans were received in the United States.

Highlighted highlights: 

Molina, in her paper, traces what she calls the “medicalized representation of Mexicans” back to when the U.S. Southwest was still a part of Mexico and the idea of Manifest Destiny informed U.S. expansionism toward the south. 

A “medicalized representation,” she explains, meant portraying Native Americans and Mexicans, who were prospective American conquests, as biologically inferior — races more likely to die out over time rather than become Americans. 

“The border,” as in the actual physical demarcation, was created after the Mexican-American War. The first checkpoint came in 1896. 

In the early 20th century, agricultural expansion in the United States created a demand for labor, drawing young, adult men from Mexico — some fleeing the Mexican Revolution. This laid the foundation of what would become a seasonal cycle of migration, to and from Mexico, corresponding with the agricultural cycle in the United States. 

But the entry of these workers wasn’t without event: 

Mexicans underwent intrusive, humiliating, and harmful baths and physical examinations at the hands of the US Public Health Service (USPHS) at the US-Mexico border beginning in 1916. The rationale was the belief that Mexicans were bringing disease into the United States.5Thus, public health policies helped to secure the US-Mexico border and to mark Mexicans as outsiders even before the advent of more focused gatekeeping institutions, such as the border patrol, created in 1924.

That same year saw a typhus outbreak in Los Angeles County. To contain the outbreak, government officials exclusively targeted Mexican laborers, whom they saw as “potentially pathogenic.” 

The laborers resisted. They sent letters to government officials highlighting the structural deficits at their camps, such as the lack of toilets and bathing facilities. 

Molina writes:

By failing to treat typhus as a threat to the public at large, officials constructed the disease as uniquely Mexican. This preference for making race the organizing principle for understanding typhus also transformed Mexicans from unfortunate victims of a serious disease into active transmitters of deadly germs, thus adding a medicalized dimension to existing nativism. 

Armored by their presumed scientific objectivity, health officials gave wide circulation to constructed categories of Mexicans as unclean, ignorant of basic hygiene practices, and unwitting hosts for communicable diseases. These images were embedded in medical and media narratives and in public policy.

Indeed, publications from the time showed photos of poor Mexicans in their camps with captions associating them with disease. 

Today, we have government officials sending similar visual messages: 

In 1942, the United States and Mexico created the Bracero Program, which brought around four million Mexican men to work in agriculture and other industries, such as railroads. The idea was to plug World War II labor shortages, but these workers, too, while “essential” to the U.S. economic health at the time, were hardly welcome. 

They were first made to go through screenings on the Mexican side of the border, and then again on the American side. Molina cites research showing they had to wait 6-8 hours to be examined, were shuffled into large inspection chambers like cattle, and then stripped and subjected to intrusive examinations. Then, a rinse and repeat on the American side of the border. 

Some details of workers’ reactions, per Molina: 

Carlos Cordella, a processing employee, described how braceros were asked to strip and then were sprayed with a white powder on their hair, face, and “lower area,” a procedure that embarrassed them. 

Some tolerated the situation with humor, declaring, “I guess we're gringos now.”28

Recently, in what appears to be a stark case of déjà vu, the Mexican government set up dubious “disinfection tunnels” — this time, for deportees from the United States. 

For the braceros of the 1940s who got through and were hired, the U.S. government did not help foster living conditions conducive to good health or preventing accidents. Molina concludes:

Race served as an interpretive framework for explaining the typhus outbreaks and for developing a double-screening policy for braceros entering the United States and thus precluded any need to ameliorate the living conditions of workers once they had settled in the United States. Such reasoning, firmly established, obviated the need for a deeper investigation into the systemic inequality that fostered the inferior health and living conditions of Mexican laborers. Because medical discourse has the power to naturalize racial categories, it has also in some cases naturalized societal inequalities.

Today, coronavirus hotspots have developed in food processing plants around the country, where the workforce largely comprises immigrant workers. Most do not have health benefits, protective equipment, paid sick leave, or other safeguards that could protect them from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Yet American employers once again place blame on “living circumstances in certain cultures” rather than remedying these structural inequalities. 

Implications 

A couple of things stuck out to me as I was doing this research. 

One, according to the historian Alexandra Minna Stern, who co-authored the paper I explored in my last newsletter, medical screenings at the southern border often exempted those Mexicans who were well-dressed or who rode first class on the train. So a class element was embedded within these policies. 

Second, as with the effect of punitive border crossing laws and and amped up border security, medical screening stations in Texas and California had the effect of pushing Chinese, Syrian, Mexican and other working class immigrants to cross into the United States through more remote and dangerous parts of the desert.

Other related readings: 

  • My former colleague Brentin Mock did a fascinating Q&A with Connecticut College gender and women’s studies professor, Mab Segrest, who is out with a new book: Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the Haunting of American Psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum. Segrest traces how black Americans were associated with disease through the history of a Georgia mental health institution, known to be the largest in the world at one time. There, doctors in the late 1800s theorized that emancipation was driving black Americans insane because they no longer had access to “the hygienic effects of slavery.” (CityLab)

  • Two essays citing Greg Grandin’s book, The End of the Myth, that are worth checking out: (1) When the frontier becomes a wall (The New Yorker); (2) Back to the wall (The Baffler)

  • Every possible thing you want to know about the border wall. (e-flux journal

  • For more studies: Buildings, boundaries, and blood: medicalization and nation-building on the U.S.-Mexico border, 1910-1930. (The Hispanic American Historical Review, Alexandra Minna Stern) 

That’s it for now. 

Stay safe out there! 

Tanvi

The unbearable foreignness of germs

(Part 1)

Hi everyone,

Had to take a hiatus because of some personal stuff and — *gestures wildly* — all of this. But now that I’m not going anywhere due to the pandemic, I have plenty of time! Ish.

Anyway, I hope everyone is safe and healthy and at least six feet away from everyone else. <3

Given the circumstances, I thought it’d be a good time to discuss an age-old trope that has taken on new vigor in these times: the association of immigrants with disease.

Many have taken to using terms like “Wuhan virus” or “China virus” to refer to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Like, remember that time when the U.S. president crossed out the word “Coronavirus” in his briefing notes and wrote “China virus” over it?

Some pundits have defended this usage on Twitter, dismissing concerns over this characterization as just another manifestation of “PC culture” or an impractical distraction from the real issues, or some combination of the two. One senator (hailing from a state where people sometimes eat rattlesnakes) blamed the pandemic on “some of the cultural practices” in China, arguing that people there “eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.” He blamed China not only for COVID-19, but for other diseases, including Swine Flu (which originated in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Even right-wing Indian trolls have taken this up, arguing that if “Spanish Flu” (also first reported in the U.S. and not Spain! ), “Ebola,” and “MERS” are O.K. — (they wouldn’t be if they were named today, per the World Health Organization’s naming guidelines) — then why not “China/Chinese virus”?

I’m not under the illusion that I will convince any trolls or pundits otherwise, nor is this newsletter about that. It is, however, exploring age-old tropes, and how they inform policies and actions. So here goes:

1) Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum! It has real, concrete consequences. Associating diseases with certain communities enables violence against those communities. In the U.S., Asian Americans are already experiencing hate crimes and violent attacks, according to the New York Times. In India, people from states in the Northeast — the ones that border China — are also experiencing such venom.

2) That terminology helps politicians “other” the disease — and therefore, externalize responsibility for its spread. That can cost lives.

3) Finally, language that associates immigrants and foreigners with disease is then used to justify exclusionary policies. Governments take steps to turn away people who do not pose a real threat in terms of transmission, and who may be in need of protection themselves from the disease in question and from other threats back home. That also costs lives.

Unfortunately, this is one of the oldest tricks in the playbook, as we will see below.

The reading:

I found two articles in reputable medical journals that explore this connection. Today, I’m going to go through the first one:

The gist:

The authors examine three phases in U.S. immigration history: From 1882, when the United States first banned Chinese laborers from immigrating, to 1924, when the National Origins Act, which favored Western European immigration and excluded all Asians, was passed; the period from 1924 to 1965, when exclusionary quotas enacted by that law were in place; and finally, 1965 to the date of the article’s publication in 2002, when America opened its doors to immigrants from India, China, Latin America, and beyond.

They conclude:

In each of these phases, even as the political and social currents shifted, a series of interrelated factors shaped immigrant health and health care in American society.

First, the social perception of the threat of the infected immigrant was typically far greater than the actual danger. Indeed, the number of “diseased” immigrants has always been infinitesimal when compared with the number of newcomers admitted to this country.

Second, Americans have tended to view illness among immigrants already settled in the United States as an imported phenomenon.

Third, policymakers have employed strikingly protean medical labels of exclusion.

If authorities and anti-immigration advocates found that one classification failed to reject the “most objectionable,” they soon created a new one that emphasized contagion, mental disorder, chronic disability, or even a questionable physique. Although such labels never became the primary reason for debarring specific immigrant groups, their widespread use contributed to durable biological metaphors that explained, usually in catastrophic terms, the potential risks of unrestricted immigration to the nation's social health.

Highlighted highlights:

While we romanticize the Ellis Island days (insofar as they present a period of greater hospitality to immigration), Markel and Stern write that this was when discriminatory medical screenings of immigrants, and the targeting of certain races and classes, started:

For example, Mexican and Chinese laborers, who donned work clothes and did not display the fashionable dress of more affluent immigrants, were subjected to harsher medical scrutiny, more frequently poked for blood and urine samples, and disinfected with chemical agents (Markel and Stern 1999; Shah 2001).

Indeed, it was nearly always the case that travelers in first-, and most in second-, class on ships and trains entering the country underwent a much more  limited appraisal than did those in steerage. In order to avoid more invasive and traumatic medical examinations, the wealthier immigrants, especially before 1907, were encouraged by European and Asian shipping agents to purchase a first- or second-class ticket in order to keep clear of the intrusive eyes of the American doctors.

So maybe all of this made sense, because it was a different time and people brought scary diseases? Nah, write Markel and Stern:

“In any year between 1891 and 1924, less than 3 percent of the total number of immigrants seeking entry to the United States were rejected for reasons of a contagious, infectious, or loathsome disease; mental disorder; or physical disability.

What did change during this period was the percentage of those immigrants debarred for medical reasons out of the total number debarred for any reason (e.g., being a contract laborer, criminal, or prostitute; showing evidence of an untoward political belief system; or being deemed “likely to become a public charge”). For example, in 1898, of the total number of immigrants excluded, only 2 percent were shut out based on medical criteria. In 1913, this percentage rose to 57 percent, and by 1915, it was 69 percent.

More significantly, this proportional increase was not the result of a higher incidence of contagious or infectious disease; rather, it was due to a growing list of ailments, physical disabilities, and, over time, determinations of moral status (Kraut 1994; U.S. Department of the Treasury 1891–1901,1902–1911; USPHS 1912–1930; Yew 1980).”

Nativist labor unions and politicians framed Chinese laborers in the United States as as threatening on many fronts at this time. This “yellow peril” narrative included painting Chinese immigrants as the carriers of disease. How did that reflect in the time’s deportation policies? Well, between 1890 and 1924, while the Chinese made up only 1 percent of the immigrants coming to the United States, they made up 4 percent of yearly deportations, Markel and Stern write.

And then, of course, as we all know, what started as nativist backlash progressed to an all-out ban, enshrined in law, that extended to many other categories of foreigners:

Following on the heels of a series of progressively detailed laws dictating the entry of the foreign born—such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1891 Immigration Act, and the 1893 Quarantine Act—the 1924 act represented both a crescendo of nativism and the start of a new era of immigration and racial exclusion in American society.

As several scholars have argued, while still stigmatizing and severely limiting “new” immigrants, the National Origins Act nonetheless symbolically permitted them to enter the realm of white America by classifying them as Caucasian while categorically defining Mexicans and Asians as outsiders (Jacobson 1998; Ngai 1999). Whichever the group in question, however, categories of medical exclusion had become closely entwined with racial labels and perceptions of foreigners as inassimilable and diseased.

After 1965, America became more diverse, but this association between certain groups of foreigners and disease remained solid, and even strengthened during times of medical crisis. In 1993, during the AIDS epidemic, then-President Bill Clinton signed into law immigration laws that have given us many of the most criticized parts of the U.S. immigration system. He also added HIV as a criterion to keep out immigrants. Markel and Stern explain:

One thing had not changed, however: the assumption that many infectious diseases originated beyond American borders and were trafficked in by foreigners. This perception was supported by immigration health policy, which required only potential immigrants and visa solicitors, not visiting travelers or American citizens returning from abroad, to undergo medical examinations before leaving their countries of origin.

Thus, the realistic menace of imported germs—which scorn all boundaries and can incubate just as elusively and easily in an American tourist heading back from a vacation in the Bahamas as in a Russian visa applicant seeking to join her relatives in Chicago—was eclipsed by the recalcitrant connection between foreigners and disease.

Shorter things I’m reading: 

Twitter pals and colleagues Felipe De La Hoz and Gaby Del Valle have a great newsletter: Border / Lines, where they break down the big immigration news items of the week. In a recent edition, they broke some news about how ICE was bringing back stranded Americans on the same flights it was using to deport immigrants to Honduras.

Turns out, these deportation flights also have an interesting history. Check out this Twitter thread by Adam Goodman, a historian at University of Chicago Illinois, that goes over some highlights:

Coming up next:

I know I’m supposed to tackle the rest of the Fischer book, Migration History, but I pushed it back because it is evergreen. And because I have ADD.

In the next edition, coming soon, I’m going to tackle a paper exploring how the threat of contagion has historically informed policies at the Southern border of the United States.

Suggestions? 

If you have suggestions for books/papers I should read, digest, and annotate here — including any that you might have written — add it in here! I may tackle it going forward. Once I have accumulated a critical mass of suggestions, I can also make the list public for easy reference. 

Over and out.

Tanvi

'Hordes': The origin story

Hi all,  

Welcome to le deuxième edition!

Today, I'm going to do Migration: A World History, by Michael H. Fisher, which is a book I borrowed from my local library and, because I'm a delinquent, haven’t yet returned. [grimace emoji] 

I chose it because a) it was accessible and b) it was an easy enough read — a good book to skim through for a quick but expansive view of migration. What I struggled with, however, was figuring out how much of the nitty-gritty historical information to include here.

Fisher, a history professor at Oberlin College, packs a lot in there! So to keep it short and spicy, I’ve decided to break the book down into two newsletter installments. In this one, I’m going to distill some anecdotes/insights from the first three chapters: 

The gist:

Fisher demonstrates in the book that migration is a quintessential human phenomenon. He writes in the introduction: 

We are all the descendants of migrants and we virtually all migrate during the course of our own lives. From the origin of our Homo sapiens species in about 200,000 BCE until today, we have expanded our range over the entire planet. We have emigrated to seek new opportunities, often driven out by deteriorating social or physical environments. As the earth’s climate has changed and our societies have developed, migration has enabled us to better our lives and those of our children. 

Fisher establishes migration not just as a collective action underpinning significant historical turning points, but also as an individual act of agency or response to constraints. From the earliest human nomads who moved to hunt and forage to modern migrants driven from city to city in search of work (See: Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century), migration underpins both our "History" and our small “h” histories. Some people migrate their entire lives in search of safety, livelihood, community, or power. But “each of us migrates to at least some degree,” Fisher writes. 

Highlighted highlights:

Chapter 1: Earliest Human Migrations, ca. 200,000 BCE to ca. 600 CE 

This chapter traces the history of migration as our species, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa, formed nomadic clans, settled into farming communities, and coalesced further into cities and kingdoms. 

As empires grew and expanded, trade flourished, new religions bloomed; communities and cultures spread out. While people today migrate for a host of reasons, migrant networks are built in a similar manner: People spread, create pathways, and put down roots. Others from their communities then follow: 

During the period circa 1050 to circa 600 BCE, Greek-language speakers gradually scattered like seeds across the islands and lands of the eastern Mediterranean and west Asia, describing this process as diaspora, meaning “sowed or dispersed over.” After a community begins to identify strongly with a geographical region as its sacred homeland, it experiences a collective sense of loss and hope of future return when forced to emigrate. Even if people voluntarily emigrate, they may still continue to identify strongly with the land they left behind.

The second thing that struck me was an anecdote about Attila the Hun and his conquests in the Western Roman Empire: 

“Such predatory migration were most powerful when mobilized by a charismatic leader who brought diverse people together to form an awe-inspiring horde (originally meaning in many Central Asian languages, “royal encampment”). 

“The cultural impact of these predatory migrations persist; their names still seem threatening in English today: goths, vandals, Attila, Hun.” 

Reading this, I thought of the way “the caravan” of migrants from Central America was characterized last year. The use of words like “horde” — or “flood,” “swamp,” or “swarm” — connoted the magnitude and violent nature of that migration, while also dehumanizing the participants. 

At the time, in an interview with Public Radio International, Professor Gregory Lee at the University of Lyon called the use of such descriptors “inundation metaphors,” which create images of being overrun or invaded. We now know it goes back to, apparently, Attila the Hun. 

Chapter 3: Migrations Start to Connect the World, 1450 to 1750 

In some cases, cultures have coalesced around the act of moving itself.

The Roma people, whose origins and language traces back to Western India, were able to migrate all the way across the world. They continue their nomadic lifestyle today, but are “a distinctive minority, often marginalized by the surrounding society” to which they have migrated, Fisher writes.

Then there is the forced migration of enslaved people to South Asia during this time. The trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slavery routes had long existed, Fisher writes; forcibly sending roughly 14 million Africans to Asia — more in number then those that would cross the Atlantic. Both systems were brutal (and Fisher goes into more detail about the brutality of Transatlantic slavery in the following chapters), but they also exhibited key differences:

Slaves in the Atlantic world usually were legal property, with few rights. In contrast, slaves in North Africa and Asia had some legal and customary rights, were often respected for their individual skills, and had the possibility of rising to power.

Fisher gives the example of one individual, named Chapu (16th to 17th century), who was born in the Ethiopian highlands — a region that apparently Christian Ethiopians from nearby kingdoms and Muslim Arabs liked to frequent in search of people to sell into slavery. Chapu was sold multiple times and ended up in the Ahmadnagar Sultanate of India. His master, also formerly enslaved, trained him in military arts and converted him to Islam. 

Chapu, who changed his name to Malik Ambar, was eventually emancipated, and rose up the ranks of the aristocracy. He, like many other men of Ethiopian descent in the region, married an Indian woman, forming the origins of the “Siddi” (spelled different ways) community that still exists in Western India and Pakistan.

This, to me, seemed like an early type of the Exceptional Migrant Story™, which tends to romanticize one individual’s successful journey in what is generally arbitrary and oppressive system.

Today, members of the Siddi community in India, although citizens, are regularly discriminated against and othered, if not rendered entirely invisible.

Shorter things I’m reading: 

A young girl’s immigrant journey in “A line that birds cannot see.” (The New Yorker)

Coming up next:

The next edition will tackle highlights from the rest of this book. But here are some readings to look forward to in the future: 

  • The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen

  • Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America by Mae M. Ngai

Suggestions? 

If you have suggestions for books I should read, digest, and annotate here — including any that you might have written — add it in here! I may tackle it going forward. Once I have accumulated a critical mass of suggestions, I can also make the list public for easy reference. 

That’s it for now! 

Over and out.

Tanvi

Toni Morrison :')

Hi folks,

Welcome to the first edition of this thing here.

So, I want to keep these as short as possible, because we all have lives etc etc. But let me just quickly reiterate why I started this newsletter.

I cover the day-to-day onslaught of U.S. immigration policy news, and I’m intimately familiar with the brokenness of the current immigration system. Despite my familiarity with the subject, I still yearn for a broader, deeper framework to understand what’s happening in our current moment. Doing these readings help me make sense of what is a very chaotic and unjust world — and prepare for a future where it may become even more so. Sometimes — sometimes! — I even find glimmers of hope in the process.

In any case, I thought it would be fun to take interested parties along on the journey as I try to organize, process, and distill key ideas from the texts I’m reading.

NB: It’s an experiment so its structure may evolve. And, I should mention, there may be lulls where you may not see this newsletter in your inboxes. For now, though, I’m going to TRY to keep shooting a couple of these out per month.

With that said,,,,,

Onwards!


I thought it would be auspicious to kick the newsletter off by picking The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison, which I read a few months ago. It’s a slim book, and snaps into focus many of the themes that come up in my work. In the foreword, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates situates the work in the current zeitgeist:

“The Origin of Others—Morrison’s new book derived from the lecture series she gave at Harvard—is not directly concerned with the rise of Donald Trump. But it is impossible to read her thoughts on belonging, on who fits into the umbrella of society and who does not, without considering our current moment… This is a work about the creation of aliens and the erection of fences, one that employs literary criticism, history and memoir in an attempt to understand how and why we have come to associate those fences with pigment.”

My read:

It’s impossible to extricate contemporary notions of citizenship, of belonging, from the history of slavery in the United States, which is why I found this book really helpful in setting the stage for the exploration to come.

The gist:

Through a series of literary works by William Faulkner, Harrier Beecher Stowe, Flannery O’Conner, and others, Morrison explores how we portray the socially constructed “other” — in this case, the enslaved person, the immigrant.

In doing so, she is able to hone in on the motivation behind the process of Othering, which can happen despite our best intentions or as a result of our worst:

“What is the nature of Othering’s comfort, its allure, its power (social, psychological, or economical)? Is it the thrill of belonging — which implies being part of something bigger than one’s solo self, and therefore stronger? My initial view leans towards the social / psychological need for a “stranger,” an Other in order to define the estranged self (the crowd seeker is always the lonely one).

In the last chapter, The Foreigner’s Home, Morrison pulls us back into the present, describing today as an era of the mass movements of people —

“of workers, intellectuals, refugees, and immigrants, crossing oceans and continents, through customs offices or in flimsy boats, speaking multiple languages of trade, of political intervention, of persecution, war, violence, and poverty.”

Her main argument — that Othering is an “attempt to confirm oneself as normal” — applies to our globalized world, which has given birth to more fears than opportunities.

Other highlighted highlights:

Chapter 2: Being or Becoming a Stranger

Chapter 6: The Foreigner’s Home

Shorter things I’m reading:

  1. The underground lives of immigrants in Queens (New York Times)

  2. When Mexico’s immigration troubles came from Americans crossing the border (Smithsonian Magazine)

Thanks for reading — and let me know if you have thoughts/opinions/recommendations/concerns. Ooh, and and: Happy Diwali to those who celebrated yesterday!

Over and out.

Tanvi

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