By Margaret Talbot
The New Yorker
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 Juárez, 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 coördinated 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.
Politicians now know better than to talk openly about immigration in terms of purity and contagion, but they still make the connection. This summer, as unaccompanied minors from Central America began arriving in large numbers at the border, Representative Phil Gingrey, of Georgia—a doctor, as it happens—wrote a letter to the C.D.C. in which he said that the influx “poses many risks, including grave public health threats,” and claimed that many of the children lacked basic vaccinations such as those for measles. In fact, the vaccination rates for measles in Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico are around ninety per cent, which means that children from those countries are about as likely to be vaccinated as children in the United States are. Undoubtedly, some of the kids were sick, or suffering from malnutrition and other ailments associated with poverty, but they were not an invading army of germ warriors.
President Obama tried to keep immigration politics out of the midterm elections; in September, the Washington Post reported that he had decided not to take the executive action on immigration reform which he had promised—protecting millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation—until after the midterms, “acquiescing to Democrats’ fears that such a move would damage their prospects for maintaining control of the U.S. Senate.” Meanwhile, the Administration announced plans to build an enormous detention camp for women and children who enter the country from Mexico without documentation. It will be situated in South Texas and operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison company with a controversial record. In 2009, the Administration stopped housing families in a similar facility that the company ran in Texas, the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, following widespread criticism and a lawsuit filed by the A.C.L.U. which asserted that harsh, prisonlike conditions were harming the mental health of the children held there. Federal immigration officials found many “deficiencies,” including inadequate sanitation and an over-all attitude of “disinterest and complacency.” But somehow we’re back in a political moment when the privately contracted detention of children seems like good immigration policy.