Magazine article The New Yorker

Midterm Anxieties

Magazine article The New Yorker

Midterm Anxieties

Article excerpt

MIDTERM ANXIETIES

When does Ebola look like a gift? Apparently, when you are a Republican candidate for the Senate who sees it as a handy pretext for bringing up immigration politics while scaring people into voting for you. Thom Tillis, in a campaign debate in North Carolina with Senator Kay Hagan, put it this way: "Ladies and gentlemen, we've got an Ebola outbreak. We have bad actors that can come across the border. We need to seal the border." In New Hampshire, Scott Brown started off by conjuring up ISIS fighters slipping through spongy borders, then casually switched to Ebola-sickened hordes. "One of the reasons why I have been so adamant about closing our border," he said, "is because if people are coming through normal channels--can you imagine what they can do through a porous border?" Both ISIS and Ebola provoke enough anxiety for most people to contemplate them without being goaded. There are, however, no reported instances of Ebola-infected immigrants crossing illegally from Mexico, and, with ISIS fighters busy in Iraq and Syria, it's possible but not likely that they're hanging out in Ciudad Juarez, planning a raid on Arizona, as Representative Trent Franks maintains. But, as Franks and his fellow-Republicans demonstrated, you don't need to construct a plausible or even a coherent scenario to deploy such threats for political ends.

The Democrats were not entirely immune from such temptation. Campaign ads and a few candidates--including Senator Mark Udall, of Colorado--implied that Ebola surveillance would have been better coordinated if the Republicans hadn't managed to cut the budgets of the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That apportionment of blame wasn't strictly accurate. Funding for the N.I.H. and the C.D.C. hasn't always kept pace with inflation in recent years, but, in some budgets, Congress allocated them more money than the Obama Administration had requested. Still, at least such tactics centered on the agencies responsible, and didn't engage in the old practice of conflating disease and foreignness.

The medical historian Howard Markel notes that "Chinese immigrants were once linked to bubonic plague and hookworm, Mexicans were thought to be infested with lice, and Russian Jews were seen as somehow especially vulnerable to tuberculosis and--a favorite wastebasket diagnosis of nativists in the early 1900s--'poor physique.' " Taking advantage of such associations, which were almost never based on legitimate science, nativists helped pass the Immigration Act of 1924, the racist law that imposed quotas on the basis of national origin--Asians were completely excluded--and governed U.S. immigration until 1965. Senator Patrick McCarran, of Nevada, a co-sponsor of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, which, among other provisions, made it easier to bar immigrants who had chronic diseases, offered a metaphor that made explicit immigration law's preoccupation with purity. Immigration was a stream, he said, adding that if it "is healthy, the impact on our society is salutary; but if that stream is polluted our institutions and our way of life become infected."

Politicians now know better than to talk openly about immigration in terms of purity and contagion, but they still make the connection. …

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