Domestic Affairs

A History Lesson for Biden: Where the Pandemic’s Effect on Immigration Has Occurred Before

While Biden copy-pastes immigration strategies, he must first juxtapose this approach with the 20th century Texas Typhus Panic. Originally, the Biden administration sought to lift Title 42—a public emergency health order issued by Trump that pushes away immigrants seeking asylum. But a coalition of 24 states had other plans. In this preliminary injunction issued by Louisianian Judge Robert Summerhays, the CDC failed to consider what would happen once Title 42 was lifted. The CDC often contradicted itself, finding that a lift on an order that supposedly protects public health would only further strain healthcare resources and thereby harm public health. However, Biden aimed to work around this injunction by an expansion that we have seen before. 

Duplicating the order used to aid Ukrainian immigrants fleeing the Russian invasion, the Biden administration now plans to take measures allowing for the air-travel of 24,000 Venezuelans into the United States. However, public safety protections once again bar the way for the immigrants. Venezuelan flights are not allowed in the U.S. due to safety concerns and strained relations between the U.S. and Venezuela. Moreover, Mexico also restricts air travel for Venezuelans, further limiting their migration to the U.S. Yet hope remains

The U.S. will issue 65,000 work visas to Latin American peoples for fiscal year 2023. For the 1,300 asylum seekers crossing into El Paso per day, this may prove vital to successful legal immigration into the U.S. However, the Biden administration should revisit an overlooked history lesson. Biden should learn to spot the parallels between his handling of Title 42 and the handling of past ‘disease-ridden’ immigrants. In doing so, he may prepare the CDC better against the injunction that keeps a public health panic under political control. 

At a border-check typhus fever disinfection plant in 20th century El Paso, the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) implemented a quarantine procedure for incoming migrant workers. These ‘health checks’ stripped immigrants naked for 30 minutes (or until their clothes were laundered), deloused males by clipping their hair off and females by dousing their hair with kerosene and vinegar, and then showered migrants with kerosene, soap, and water. This was all done for the purpose of purifying them of a supposed sickness, an imperceptible threat. Despite zero cases of typhus fever four months after the beginning of these inspections, this procedure continued for a decade after the typhus fever panic had subsided.

The similarities between Title 42 and the USPHS’s approaches to immigration are striking. Both procedures hinge on the protection of public health to sustain themselves, and both do not adequately address the hardships each immigrant must face in coming to America. Instead, under both policies, immigrants become a disease; they become something that requires vaccines, hospital beds, and doctor’s appointments. They lose their humanity. Simply redeploying a strategy that worked for one country with one sociopolitical history and climate will not work for another. In other words, one cannot bandage the problem of immigration with one solution. It must be tailored to that country and their needs. Before creating laws that only help a small margin of immigrants, it may be wise to revisit the history of Venezuela, to see what has pained and plagued these people in the past. Lest we lose our empathy and allow ourselves to panic. Lest we allow a public health crisis to dictate our lives.

Categories: Domestic Affairs

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