Germs Don't Care If You Are Legal Or Not

[ Posted Wednesday, August 19th, 2009 – 16:13 UTC ]

There is certainly no shortage of irony in the debate raging across the country on healthcare reform. For me, though, the choicest bit of irony has to be the new rallying cry of those who want to shoot down any reform efforts -- that it would provide insurance for illegal immigrants. This irony is lost on those who don't know their history, though. Because fear of immigrants is what started the concept of "public health" in America. But back then, it was fear of sick immigrants infecting everyone else which drove the debate. Hence the irony.

A century ago, what once had been a radical new idea had largely been accepted as scientific truth -- the "germ theory" of disease. Germs (or, more properly, micro-organisms) caused disease -- it sounds simple today, but back then it was a fairly new notion. With this new understanding came a better grasp of how diseases jumped from person to person. Whether through the air, through water, or through touch, these tiny germs passed from a sick person to infect a healthy person. As I said, this all sounds pretty basic now.

But as well as the budding science of microbiology, germ theory also drove public policy. The concept of "public health" was transformed as a result. Because germs don't care how much money you have -- they are the ultimate in non-bias. They'll infect anybody. Which meant that the wealthier members of society had a new vested interest in keeping the poorer members healthy -- to stop communicable diseases in their tracks.

This wasn't just do-gooder-ism, either. Domestic servants of the wealthy prepared food, tended children, nursed, and cleaned for the privileged members of society. Meaning they both existed (for at least part of their day) under the same roof. So there was more than just a hint of self-interest in attempting to keep all members of society healthy. Mary Mallon drove this point home. You may wonder who Mallon was, because you don't recognize her name. But you do know her, by her tabloid name: "Typhoid Mary." The sensational case Mallon represented drove the point home to the public 100 years ago -- servants can unknowingly kill members of your family, even if the servant appears fully healthy.

What followed in the decades to come were public health missions to the tenements and slums. And, later, building codes which dictated proper sanitary facilities in kitchens and bathrooms. Public health improved as a result, and life expectancy went up.

But things weren't so different a century ago as they are now. Immigrants entered America, took the cheapest housing (tenements and slums), and worked the least-desirable jobs (such as being servants). And fear-mongering surrounded immigrants the same back then as it does today, although the face of the immigrant has changed a bit in the intervening years (Mary Mallon was born in Ireland, for instance). But back then, the fear-mongering did some good, by cleaning up the worst asepsis in the inner cities, and introducing the concept of hygiene as a desirable thing for all.

Today, it seems, the fear-mongering has turned completely around, because now some are saying: "We don't want to pay for healthcare for illegal immigrants!" But I wonder whether that will change, when you add to it the media's perennial cry of "Wolf!" on whatever disease is supposed to kill us all next month. SARS came and went, Asian bird flu likewise made a splash in the headlines, and this year we're supposed to all quake in terror over swine flu. Now, I'm not saying that these diseases shouldn't be respected by public health authorities, but when the media gets involved all perspective immediately gets thrown out the window in favor of sheer sensationalism. If you need proof, consider that in an average year 36,000 people in America die from the flu. Every year. And there are no headlines or screaming scare-mongering about it at all. SARS, Asian bird flu, and swine flu combined have not caused as many deaths in America as the average yearly flu numbers. But facts like these are almost irrelevant when it comes to the media's behavior. Which is why I used the "cry wolf" metaphor in the first place.

But I wonder, how much of a nudge would it take to get people scared about illegal immigrants spreading disease to average Americans? It already happened when swine flu first appeared on the scene, with politicians advocating closing the border with Mexico. If swine flu returns to the headlines with a vengeance, these calls will likely resurface.

The fact is almost all of us have some sort of contact with immigrants (and remember, germs don't care whether they are documented or not). Do you eat out at restaurants? Guess who is cooking your food and cleaning the dishes. Do you have children in school? Guess who they're rubbing shoulders with during the day. Are you fortunate enough to have a nanny, a gardener, a cleaning lady, or any other "help" around your house? Maybe not, but the last three questions cover just about everybody: Do you go to the grocery store? Do you buy produce? Do you buy any farm products at all? Virtually nobody in America lives in some sort of "immigrant-free bubble."

I don't mean to be engaging in fear-mongering myself here, but it's easy to see without looking too far (as Bob Dylan once wrote) that public health concerns everyone. And excluding a portion of society for any reason is penny-wise and pound-foolish. Do you really want to limit, for instance, vaccinations only to people who have legal documents, or would you rather everyone get inoculated? Remember, those you exclude will likely have some sort of contact with either you, your kids, or the food you eat at some point. So you are gambling with your own health as well as those "illegal immigrants." Once again, germs do not care how much money or how much status you have -- they'll infect anyone.

Now, I'm not arguing for or against any particular healthcare reform plan in this article. I'm not addressing a lot of tangential issues, I fully realize. And I am not trying to scare anyone, merely pointing out the arguments which may be used by people who really do want to scare you. With the media already trying to scare everyone on the swine flu story, and with the anti-immigrant position on full display in the healthcare reform debate, such fear-mongering seems a logical next step for someone out there to take. Because the entire concept of public health was begun on fear -- fear of infectious disease. And while the fear-mongering is currently running towards saving some money on healthcare reform by denying any of it to illegal immigrants, I can see it changing course fairly quickly with a few stories in the next few months about people dying of swine flu. Do you really want to deny the kids in your daughter's class at school a flu shot, to save a few pennies? Really?


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


7 Comments on “Germs Don't Care If You Are Legal Or Not”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    This was an excellent essay, from start to one does it better!

    I wish everyone involved in the health care debate could read this.

    When Rep. Barney Frank was asked about this at his recent town hall, I thought for sure that he was going to say something along the lines of what you wrote here. Silly me. I couldn't believe that he would dodge this issue by trying to aleviate the fear - talk about irony, on more than one level - raised by the question by saying that he has read the reform bill and that it excludes covering illegal immigrants.

    That was a very sad exchange.

    Anyway, just wanted to send out a big BRAVO! on an excellent that sets the gold standard on this issue.

  2. [2] 
    fstanley wrote:

    I agree that excluding people from access to health care is not a good idea. We are already excluding the poor and many of the those in prisons do not receive good health care (talk about the possiblities of infections in prisons and emergency rooms). I thought the whole point of these reforms is to include everyone so that costs will go down and people will live healthier lives.

    I think it is irresponsible and unethical of those who chose to insite fear and anger with lies playing to the insecurities of people.


  3. [3] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    Chris, if there's one thing the GOP has succeeded at it's driving a wedge between individuals and society. I hope we can recognize your argument before something really awful reminds us of the importance of public health applying to everyone.

  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:


    I think it is irresponsible and unethical of those who chose to insite fear and anger with lies playing to the insecurities of people.

    I couldn't agree more.

    This is a tactic used by BOTH sides of the political spectrum and it is truly despicable.


    You make a good argument for strict immigration controls. :D Such was not your intent, to be sure.

    But you have to admit, the other side of the argument does have some validity.

    The argument that it is in our own best interests to provide BASIC preventive and reactionary medical care to illegal immigrants is a valid and rational argument.

    However, the argument AGAINST such provisions is also a valid and rational argument.

    So, it seems that the ONLY logical course of action, from a healthcare standpoint, is to ship all the illegals out.

    I know, I know. That's not what you are saying, but it is a logical outgrowth of the points you are making.

    Of course we know that, under this administration, strict enforcement of all immigration laws will never happen. Barring some unforeseen disaster, it's doubtful ANY Administration will be able to strictly enforce immigration laws.

    I still think the funniest statement ever made, has come out of the immigration issue.

    "By and large, illegal immigrants obey the law."


    Regardless, I see that the best solution is to provide healthcare to illegals at a very basic level and only if such healthcare is necessary for the safety and survival of the community itself. In other words, if illegals have some sort of contagion or communicable disease than healthcare can be provided. Otherwise, they should be denied benefits for the good of society.

    I know, it's cold and it's callous. Call me Kodos, The Executioner all you want. But hard decisions must be made. Especially in emergencies such as I outlined.

    It's rather ironic. The biggest outcry against giving illegal immigrants benefits and such comes from LEGAL immigrants themselves. They probably feel that THEY did things the right way within the law. Why should the immigrants who lie and cheat the system have access to the same benefits that LEGAL immigrants worked so hard for?


  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    And so it begins.

    Obama Ally: Dem Majority Is History If Health Reform Fails

    Anyone want to remind me again of the "irrelevance" and "decline" of the Republican Party?


  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    Interesting point brought up today.

    If you want to see how the US Government provides "complete" Health Care, go to an Indian Reservation and see..

    This is how a "Government Health Care" reform would be...


  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    Charlie Cook: Dem situation has 'slipped completely out of control'

    Charlie Cook, one of the best political handicappers in the business, sent out a special update to Cook Political Report subscribers Thursday that should send shivers down Democratic spines.

    Reviewing recent polling and the 2010 election landscape, Cook can envision a scenario in which Democratic House losses could exceed 20 seats.

    "These data confirm anecdotal evidence, and our own view, that the situation this summer has slipped completely out of control for President Obama and Congressional Democrats. Today, The Cook Political Report’s Congressional election model, based on individual races, is pointing toward a net Democratic loss of between six and 12 seats, but our sense, factoring in macro-political dynamics is that this is far too low," he wrote.

    "Many veteran Congressional election watchers, including Democratic ones, report an eerie sense of déjà vu, with a consensus forming that the chances of Democratic losses going higher than 20 seats is just as good as the chances of Democratic losses going lower than 20 seats."

    Cook scrupulously avoided any mention that Democratic control of the House is in jeopardy but, noting a new Gallup poll showing Congress’ job disapproval at 70 percent among independents, concluded that the post-recess environment could feel considerably different than when Congress left in August.

    "We believe it would be a mistake to underestimate the impact that this mood will have on Members of Congress of both parties when they return to Washington in September, if it persists through the end of the Congressional recess."

    Once again, I hate to say "I told ya so", but......

    This is what comes from the mindset that you are Democrats first and Americans second.


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