What the False Hysteria Over ‘Diseased’ Migrant Kids Is Really About

Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

As a result of an ongoing humanitarian disaster in Central America connected to gang and cartel activity there, there’s been a recent surge in the number of so-called unaccompanied minors being detained at the U.S. border. In Murrieta, California, and other places where the children are being sent temporarily, some Americans are protesting their presence. A common line among some protesters and members of the media — and, unfortunately, even some elected officials — has been that the migrants could be carrying dangerous communicable diseases.

A number of prominent public-health professionals have come out strongly against the idea that the newly arrived migrants pose a contagious medical threat to Americans, and it’s a particularly strange accusation to make given that children from Guatemala, one of the affected countries, are more likely to be vaccinated against common diseases than those from Texas, where a relatively high percentage of parents refuse to get their kids vaccinated. But the fact that this rumor is circulating at all can still tell us some interesting things about the way human beings are wired to view outsiders.

Erin Buckels, a researcher at the University of Manitoba who has studied this issue, explained in in an email that both her work and a great deal of prior research has “demonstrated a strong and automatic tendency to dehumanize outgroup members, even when we have no prior experience with those groups.” Notions of pollution and infection loom large here: We often “view outsiders with disgust — partly due to the risks of infectious disease that outsiders carried in our evolutionary past — and this causes a conservative shift in our thoughts and attitudes.” So unfamiliar people “are seen as closer to animals than humans, and therefore pose a danger to our bodies (and even our souls).”

This is basically a universal human impulse — every time you read a horrific story about a young couple being murdered for a relationship that stretches across sectarian or class or caste lines, that’s part of what’s going on. In certain contexts, people just can’t stand the notion of being “infected” by outsiders — and infection can mean anything from “them” crossing “our” border to members of an undesirable class having sexual relationships with “our” daughters — to the point where they will kill people to prevent that infection from occurring.

The primal, irrational nature of these fears can make it hard to have a substantive conversation, Buckels wrote:

The end result is that it is difficult to think logically about these issues. Our moral intuitions about “purity” drive us toward biased judgments. Even if the modern risk is (logically) minimal, we still react protectively. From this perspective, it is not surprising that people would overreact to the disease threat posed by migrants from another country. Even the language surrounding immigration issues would prompt people to think about threats and disease (e.g., penetrating our borders, draining the system, etc).

Historically, treating outgroup members — particularly vulnerable ones, which the migrant children certainly are — as sullied disease vectors rather than full human beings has led to horrific outcomes. I’m sure some of the people spreading these disease rumors have what, to them, feel like valid reasons for their fears, but they’re playing a dangerous game.

What the Hysteria Over ‘Diseased’ Migrants Means