The Relationship Between Immigration and Public Health

This week’s readings explore the connection between immigration and stigmatizing immigrant groups as the root of certain diseases that have occurred throughout history. Since the founding of America up until the twentieth century, there had been a connection with “whiteness” and citizenship (Jacobson 31). Europeans felt that it was their right to conquer indigenous Native American groups because they saw themselves as reforming their “barbaric” customs and “heathenish” beliefs (Jacobson 31). By the nineteenth century, these reasons would morph into outright racism. A new scientific outlook was created, which provided an alternative to the religious beliefs held by Europeans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. People were now ranked by their “capacity” and the idea of polygenesis emerged, which stated that people are so divergent that different groups may have different origins (Jacobson 32-33). The idea of polygenesis even influenced Darwin’s theory on natural selection and led to the rise of white supremacy.

The Irish immigration during the 1840s was the beginning of fragmentation within the white race. Prior to this time, the white race as a whole in the United States was considered to be superior to all other races, primarily because almost all were of Anglo-Saxon stock. However, the Irish were seen as barbarous and unsophisticated (Jacobson 38). This image of the Irish was also bolstered by the centuries-old animosity between the English and the Irish. As we progress further and further through immigration history, the fragmentation within the white race was further and further broken down.

A prime example of how Irish immigrants were stigmatized with certain diseases was the case of Mary Mallon, better known as “Typhoid Mary.” She was an Irish immigrant cook who worked for some of New York’s wealthiest families. Mallon was the first-known healthy carrier of typhoid (she did not have typhoid; she was perfectly healthy but as a carrier of the disease she had the ability to spread it). In each of the houses Mallon worked in, almost all of the inhabitants fell ill (or even died) from typhoid. There was no real proof that it was indeed Mallon spreading the disease, but because she was a lower-class Irish immigrant woman, she was seen as “dirty” and a carrier of disease. Mallon freely admitted that she rarely washed her hands, which only made things much worse for her. Mallon was then forcibly arrested and sentenced to permanent exile. There was never any concrete proof that Mallon was spreading typhoid, but her social standing and immigrant status did not help matters for her.

The polio epidemic of 1916 was another example of how immigrants were used as scapegoats for the spread of disease. At that time, polio was seen as a disease that afflicted only the unsanitary and the immigrants, which were often one and the same in the eyes of the higher classes (Rogers 115). Doctors, who knew next to nothing about polio, were surprised to find the disease more in “clean” children (the children of wealthy parents and who practiced good hygiene) than in “dirty” children (lower-class immigrant children). Despite this, doctors were still convinced that the disease began with immigrant children, especially the Italians. People so strongly believed that the Italians were the cause of the disease that public health officials closely monitored any public events held in Italian neighborhoods and would  forcibly inspect the homes of Italian immigrants. The Italians constantly denied any association with the disease and felt that these visiting nurses and public health officials might in fact be spreading the disease. Other immigrant groups, such as the Germans and the Eastern Europeans were also considered dirty, and the Jews were blamed for the spread of tuberculosis.

This stigmatizing of immigrant groups by association with certain diseases even goes on in the present day. In a 2007 episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Stewart addresses the topic of the tightening security of the U.S./Mexico border by stating that it is believed that Mexican immigrants are bringing diseases such as tuberculosis and leprosy back into the United States. He also spoke about the image of Mexican immigrants as gangsters, druggies, and rapists. It’s easy to accept the blatant white supremacy of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it is hard for us to realize that it is still in our culture, just much more subtle.

The question I want to close my post is one that was addressed in the “Typhoid Mary” reading: is it okay to take away the liberties of an individual for the sake of public health? Is it justifiable to suspect and stigmatize an immigrant group in order to keep the rest of the population safe? Just how far is too far when it comes to maintaining public health?

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