Biosecurity or Anti-Immigration?

For this week's blog, I read Gwen D'Arcangelis' article, "Chinese Chickens, Ducks, Pig, and Human, and the Technoscientific Discourses of the Global U.S. Empire." I am currently also enrolled in another Honors course entitled Plague Culture, in which we have been investigating the various images and discourses surrounding plague and other devastating epidemics. When reading D'Ancangelis' article, I immediately began to see connections between the language and imagery of the discourse surrounding the SARS outbreak and those historically surrounding plague and its victims. Rhetorics soon shifted from associating immigrants with themes of filth and contamination, to actually referring to the immigrants themselves as a type of plague.  Just a few decades ago, people spoke of "The 'yellow peril'—the threat of Chinese settlement in the United States," with "Chinese and Mexican immigrants as a kind of infestation of plague invading the sacrosanct shores of America…" (D'Arcangelis, 430; Knippling, xiv). It made me wonder where all of these discriminatory, and really rather awful, associations came from. Was there a clear start?

Source: "Yellow Jack." (September 1883). Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. Library of Congress.

One main theme I saw among contemporary and historical (derogatory) views on immigrants was the association of them with un-hygienic ways of living and filth in general. D'Arcangelis explains that "As a site of governmentality, hygienic discourse belies its ideal of scientiļ¬c neutrality through the selective emphasis on the hygiene, or lack thereof, of some groups rather than others in aiming at a variety of ends, from policing national borders to providing health services" (p.429). This tactic was also utilized during the 1870's. When there was an outbreak of yellow fever, the main group of people seen to be the cause of the epidemic were immigrants. These views lead to the dissemination of a variety of propaganda and images depicting immigrants as the root source of contagion, filth and contamination. In her book, The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, The Epidemic that Shaped our History, Molly Crosby briefly discusses the racial dynamics, in referring to yellow fever (the actual yellow peril) as the "stranger's disease," which "regularly fed off these newly arrived, nonimmune immigrants" (n.p.). These kinds of dialogues highlights the preconceived notion that the disease somehow favored immigrants, being more attracted to them in some way.  These wrongful associations soon progressed from actual diseases and sickness, as immigrants were also blamed for a perceived 'outbreak' of 'mental-illness' that was thought to be plaguing the American nation. Torey and Miller explain that "The mental hygiene movement also attracted those who were promoting restrictions on immigration[, including] Thomas Salmon, who had been an examiner of immigrants on Ellis Island and who was sharply critical of the nation's liberal immigration policies, which he said were causing increasing insanity…" (287).  Such accusations lead to increased support for things like the Immigration Act of 1921 and the subsequent Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which restricted a vast majority of immigration.  In effect, all of these different types of people were pinned with being the source of filth, disease, contagion, and, most importantly of all, a threat to the health and security of the nation.


However, this propensity to villain-ize the 'other' is not something new.  Throughout history, Western civilization has identified and secured itself in establishing the concept of 'the other.' Usually this term was utilized to characterize anyone originating from outside of Western Europe, namely those from the so-called Orient, as well as those from Africa.  This categorization in turn spread to encompass any group that might be different from the cookie-cutter Western European, leading to discrimination and racism.  The establishment of 'the other' also created an easy scape-goat in times of crisis. For example, during the time of the Black Death (one of many recurrences of the bubonic plague), the masses found it "easy to credit Jewish malevolence with poisoning the wells" and orchestrating "an international Jewish conspiracy" (Tuchman 112,113).  Their distrust and fear of the so-called Other "made the Jew a perpetual insult… [and] a danger who must be kept distinct and apart from the Christian community," much like many other groups (109).   Their distrust fostered hate, and the Jews - an entire people - became associated with a contagion completely unrelated to them.

Source: Chapapatte, Patrick.(May 2009). "DANGER from MEXICO." The International Herald Tribune#64107.

Simply because these people are different, are the Other, they are the objects of distrust and aversion. Continuing to associate immigrants with danger and disease is perpetuating the discrimination that has been engrained in Western society for all of recorded history. 



Chapapatte, Patrick.(May 2009). "DANGER from MEXICO." The International Herald Tribune. #64107. Library of Congress.

Crosby, Molly. The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, The Epidemic that Shaped our History. New York: Berkley Books.

D'Arcangelis, Gwen. (2008) "Chinese Chickens, Ducks, Pig, and Human, and the Technoscientific Discourses of the Global U.S. Empire." In Tactical Biopolitics: ArtActivism, and Technoscience. Eds.Beatriz da Costa and Kavita Philip.

Knippling, Alpana.New Immigrant Literatures in the United States: A Sourcebook to our multicultural heritage. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Torrey, Edwin Fuller & Miller Judy. The Invisible Plague: The Rise of Mental Illness from 1750 to the Present. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Tuchman, Barbara. "'This Is the End of the World' The Black Death." A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. New York: Knopf, 1978.

 "Yellow Jack." (September 1883). Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.