Politicizing Fear: Modern Nativism in the Time of Ebola


19th century political cartoon blaming immigrants for cholera.

With the American elections a couple of weeks away, politicians are using every possible means to build an advantage, including preying on the growing fear of Ebola within the United States.  According to some conservatives, the “porous border” with Mexico is a risk for Ebola spreading within the United States, something made allegedly possible by the Obama administration.  The relationship between the fear of disease and the fear of immigrants is not a new one, and the greater the perceived threat, the better the environment for conservative politicians during the mid-term elections.

The nativist rhetoric of disease-harboring immigrants is historically familiar this country: we’ve seen it time and time again with the Chinese, the Irish, and the Italians.  In the 1830s, it was the Irish and cholera.  Then it was the Italians and polio.  Tuberculosis was once known as the “Jewish disease” or the “tailor’s disease,” after a common occupation within the Jewish community.  In the late nineteenth century, a typhoid scare associated with Eastern European Jews resulted in an unsanitary quarantine of Lower East Side residents on North Brother Island.  In 1900, the Chinese quarter in San Francisco was also quarantined by force when a case of plague was found.  Anyone of Asian appearance was not allowed to leave Chinatown and faced possible forced inoculation with an experimental vaccine.

Modern Ebola fears have already resulted in immigrant children from Rwanda being told they could not attend school, even though Rwanda is an African country about 2,600 miles away from the West Africa region hardest hit by Ebola.  A Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that 67 percent of Americans support restricting travel from the countries struggling with Ebola.  And a “Close the Border Petition” has nearly 6,000 signatures – with many of the comments referencing Ebola.

The increased fear of immigrants and “porous borders” plays to the advantage of conservative politicians.  There have been zero cases of Ebola in Mexico or among Latin American immigrants.  Yet far right politicians are rushing to call for the closing of the border.  Politicians such as New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown (R) have gone on the record stating:

One of the reasons why I’ve been so adamant about closing our border, because if people are coming through normal channels – can you imagine what they can do through our porous borders?

Joining him in the ranks of nativist alarm-raising is Thom Tillis (R), running for the North Carolina U.S. Senate seat, who suggested in a political debate that we should seal the border with Mexico to prevent the spread of Ebola. It’s not just state level candidates:  Rand Paul (R – KY), potential presidential candidate in 2016, stated that the border with Mexico is not secure enough to keep Ebola out.  Which may marginally make more sense to Mexican voters:  after all, the U.S. border state of Texas has three confirmed cases of Ebola while Mexico has none.

There’s existing literature confirming that sealing the border would be ineffective.  For example, the decrease in air travel after 9/11 created a natural experiment of the flu spread.  Fewer people traveling across borders delayed the peak of the flu season by a couple of weeks – but it happened anyway.  Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emphasized in an interview that not only would limiting or stopping travel be ineffective, it would backfire.  “People have a right to return. People transiting through could come in,” he said. “And it would backfire, because by isolating these countries, it’ll make it harder to help them, it will spread more there and we’d be more likely to be exposed here.”  Despite this, the nativist drumbeat of closing the borders against Ebola continues – with its irrational focus on the Mexican border– repeating the racism of the historical association of immigrants with disease.

This nativism on the part of some far-right Republicans is part of a larger effort to politicize fear just in time for the elections.  Republican-sponsored television ads warn of the terrorists coming through “Arizona’s backyard” – across the U.S.-Mexico border.  Jeremy Peters, in a very detailed New York Times article, argued that:

Playing off feelings of anxiety is a powerful strategy for motivating the Republican base. And few issues have proven as potent when linked together as border security and the fear of terrorism.

This fear is being deliberately linked to the Obama administration and other Democrats.  A conservative website transposed the well known campaign symbol of “Obama” into the words “Ebola.”  One conservative writer, Eric Erickson, stated

At least this administration is consistent. It will let everyone and everything, including pestilence, cross our border. I bet, if we are patient,” he added, “the administration will even place Ebola with a nice family somewhere in Middle America and give it government benefits.

Indeed, it is in the conservative political interest to play up national fears of border security in the face of Ebola and other threats such as ISIS.  According to psychological research, “When people feel safe and secure, they become more liberal; when they feel threatened, they become more conservative.”

It’s a common thread in history to blame the immigrants for a disease that scares the public.  This is now happening in the case of Ebola, and some politicians and political figureheads are at the ready to capitalize on it for political gains just in time for the November elections.  Keeping a handle on the reality of Ebola and an awareness of political motivations could go a long way in keeping any possible political and social ramifications of Ebola in the United States grounded in reality and not fear.

Further Reading

Alan M. Kraut, “Foreign Bodies: The Perennial Negotiation over Health and Culture in a Nation of Immigrants.”

Immigration Impact, Immigration Restrictionists Exploit Ebola Tragedy


  1. […] are deeply rooted and easily mobilized. Several journalists have documented  (see here, here, and here) the relationship between the over-hyped Ebola threat to Americans, and the rhetoric of hate […]


  2. […] die ziekten komen brengen is echter niet nieuw in de Amerikaanse geschiedenis. Zoals het blog The Migrationist opmerkte naar aanleiding van de koppeling van Ebola aan reizigers vanuit Afrika door de Amerikaanse […]


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