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Some Republicans Blame Migrants For COVID-19 Surges. Doctors Say They're Scapegoating

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is one of a few GOP governors who say migrants are the source of rising COVID-19 rates.
Eric Gay
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is one of a few GOP governors who say migrants are the source of rising COVID-19 rates.

With the rate of coronavirus infections rising across much of the South, some Republicans governors are floating the theory that migrants — and by extension the Biden administration — are to blame.

They're "allowing free pass into the United States of people with a high probability of COVID, and then spreading that COVID in our communities," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in an interview last month on Fox News.

"I can tell you, whatever variants are around the world, they're coming across that southern border," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a press conference last week.

The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and other right-leaning commentators have echoed the same argument, blaming large numbers of migrants crossing the southern border for the latest spike in COVID-19 cases.

But most doctors and public health experts said there's little evidence to back that up.

Migrants are no more likely to have the coronavirus than any other travelers who are crossing the border, or anyone living in COVID-19 hot spots in the U.S., medical experts said. To some observers, it all feels like the latest chapter in a long history of scapegoating immigrants.

Public health experts say the emphasis on migrants is a diversion

"This is not a border issue; it is not a migrant issue," Dr. Michele Heisler, medical director of the organization Physicians for Human Rights, said in an interview with NPR.

The places in the U.S. with the highest positivity rates are not near the border, Heisler said, or in the parts of the U.S. where migrants are heading. Instead they tend to be places with the lowest vaccination rates — and where governors have opposed mask mandates.

"They're just trying to divert attention from the actual measures that we need to take," Heisler said. "You know, asking people to wear masks, and socially distance, and take care of themselves and their loved ones. And it's baffling to me that instead of trying to protect lives, they're trying to create a scapegoat."

Migrants are no sicker than the rest of the population

At the same time, it is true that migrants are crossing the southern border in unusually high numbers — especially in the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas, where local officials have said the influx of migrants is straining social services. The city of McAllen set up an emergency encampment last week to care for migrants who test positive for the coronavirus after they're released from the custody of federal immigration authorities.

"We are mirroring exactly what's going on in the rest of the country and most of the world," said Dr. Iván Meléndez, the health authority in Hidalgo County, Texas, which includes McAllen, at a press conference last week.

There is a risk of unvaccinated migrants spreading the virus, Meléndez said. But he emphasized that they pose no more or less of a risk than anyone else who's unvaccinated.

"The positivity rate in the migrants that are coming in [is] almost exactly as the positivity rates here," Meléndez said. "Is this a pandemic of the migrants? No, it's a pandemic of the unvaccinated."

A long history of scapegoating

"As infection rates go up, as death rates go up, the scapegoating will go up," Natalia Molina, professor in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, said in an interview with NPR.

Molina said there's a long history in the U.S. of falsely blaming immigrants for bringing diseases with them — from Chinese immigrants in California more than a century ago to Central Americans and others at the border today.

"This is a pattern we've seen for 150 years," Molina said, "of medical scapegoating, of medical racism, in which we blame the disease outbreaks on immigrants, in place of really looking at other factors, our own behaviors."

It's always been easier for politicians to blame people from somewhere else, Molina said, instead of their own constituents or themselves. And there's no reason to think that will change anytime soon.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.