Here’s something you don’t hear a journalist say very often: I blew it. I was wrong.

I dismissed out of hand the suggestion by anti-immigration activists and right-wing pundits that among the worries associated with the “border kids”—the estimated 52,000 children and teenagers who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in the last year or so—was that they carried communicable diseases. 

“How original” was probably my first thought. Immigrants and fears about disease go together like beans and rice. 

Pick up a history book. In the 18th century, German immigrants coming to Pennsylvania boarded ships plagued with typhus, dysentery, smallpox, and scurvy. By the dawn of the 19th century, Irish immigrants en route to America had to contend with scarlet fever, measles, smallpox, diphtheria, typhoid fever and tuberculosis. 

Issues of public health weighed heavily on the minds of the nativists of the day, who started the Know-Nothing Party in part because they feared immigrants bringing diseases. Catholics, Jews, Italians, and Greeks were thought to be particularly susceptible. 

More recently—during a May 2007 interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes—CBS reporter Lesley Stahl skewered then-CNN anchor Lou Dobbs over a questionable statistic on his program regarding immigrants and leprosy. Stahl pointed to a 2005 report on Lou Dobbs Tonight that alleged that 7,000 new cases of leprosy had been discovered in the past three years and insinuated that this was due in large part to immigration.

There was only one problem: The numbers were bogus, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The real figure was 7,000 cases of leprosy in the previous 30 years, not the last 3 years.

So, as you can see, I’d been down this “immigrants bring disease” road before, and I’d always found it to be a dead-end street paved by fear, intolerance, and prejudice.

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