A deadly contagion rages, countless detained people have already died, fears of contamination have fanned the flames of xenophobia, and the mayor wears silk underwear to prevent infection.
This is not a scene from the COVID-19 pandemic, but a 1917 typhus outbreak in El Paso, Texas. The U.S. was engaged in the dehumanizing and dangerous practice of using noxious chemicals, such as gasoline, kerosene, sodium cyanide, cyanogens, sulfuric acid, and Zyklon B, to rid Mexicans of disease-carrying lice as they entered the country. It constituted a clear human rights violation, which directly led to the 1917 Bath Riots, when violence broke out at the crossing between Mexican housekeepers and U.S and Mexican troops.
Today, detained immigrants at Adelanto Detention Facility in California have fallen severely ill from being sprayed with a toxic disinfectant, HDQ Neutral, known to cause skin burns and eye damage.
While many have pointed out the parallels between the responses to the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak and that of COVID-19, this earlier typhus outbreak is the most comparable example from recent history to the situation we now face. Then and now, public health crises have proven especially deadly for migrants and collided with the politics of migration at the U.S.-México border.
History provides numerous and powerful cautionary tales, if we’re willing to listen. Then and now, migrants suffer the most from discriminatory policies. They suffer from the impacts of the virus itself as well as the xenophobic rhetoric that frames them as carriers of the disease rather than its victims.
This is not the first time that the spread of an infectious disease within the U.S. has led to human rights violations at the border, and it won’t be the last.
On March 18, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump closed the borders to México and Canada, and on March 20 he suspended the process of admitting asylum-seekers into the U.S. Then in April, he announced his intention to halt all immigration for 60 days (a plan that was partly rolled back later). Similarly, when the first cases of typhus were detected in January 1916, El Paso Mayor Tom Lea Jr. implemented a disinfection campaign throughout the city to prevent the spread of the disease, and fiercely advocated for a camp where all immigrants would quarantine for 10 to 14 days when they entered the country. His rationale for the quarantine revealed his racism: “hundreds [of] dirty lousey destitute Mexicans arriving at El Paso daily [would] undoubtedly … bring and spread Typhus unless a quarantine is placed at once.”
One official argued that the camp was too extreme a measure because typhus had already spread to most major U.S. cities. So, El Paso officials decided to create a delousing plant at the Santa Fe International Bridge, where migrants were stripped naked, their belongings sprayed with gasoline, and their scalps examined for lice, the vectors of the typhus bacteria. In 1917 alone, approximately 127,000 Mexicans had to go through this demeaning process. In the El Paso County Jail, detainees were deloused and forced to take baths in kerosene and vinegar. Then tragedy struck when an official lit a match near a tub filled with the kerosene, setting off a raging fire in which 27 detainees, including 19 Mexicans, burned to death.
We no longer treat detained immigrants with flammable kerosene, but the safety of detainees remains a critical issue. Observers across the U.S. have raised the alarm about the dangers and high infection rates of COVID-19 in detention centers. As of May 29, according to local journalist Bob Moore, at least 122 detainees had tested positive for COVID-19 at the El Paso Processing Center and the nearby Otero County Processing Center in New México. Although the El Paso County Court passed a resolution in April to release nonviolent migrant detainees from federal custody, the measure has not been implemented.
Local advocacy groups such as Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center and DMSC have spoken out for the migrants in detention centers in the U.S. and across the border in Ciudad Juárez. Public health experts have urged U.S officials that “rather than imposing a ban or suspension on people seeking protection from harm, U.S. authorities should use evidence-based public health measures to process asylum-seekers and other persons crossing the U.S. border.”
Not everyone agrees that asylum-seekers should be released into safer conditions, however. El Paso County Commissioner Carl Robinson believes a mass release could spread the virus to El Paso and other cities. Others have used the ongoing pandemic as an opportunity to frame migrants as vectors of disease: U.S. Sen. John Cornyn argued that “because we don’t have complete control of who comes across the southern border, I think there is a higher risk of somebody coming into the country who wittingly or unwittingly has the virus spreading it in the United States.” And while El Paso Mayor Dee Margo has not indulged in the racist rhetoric used by his predecessor, he has been largely absent from the conversation surrounding the safety of migrants.
The 1917 typhus outbreak did not have the same detrimental impact on the El Paso community as the coronavirus has had today. Only three people died in the city because of a typhus-related illness, and there have been great advancements in public health since the early 1900s.
Nevertheless, government officials on both sides of the border continue to revert to crueler forms of “treatment.” In addition to the U.S.’s punitive polices, now Mexican officials are building “sanitizing tunnels” for Americans crossing into Nogales, México, from Arizona, one of the current hotspots for the virus. At least no one wears silk underwear to ward off infection.
History provides numerous and powerful cautionary tales, if we’re willing to listen. Then and now, migrants suffer the most from discriminatory policies. They suffer from the impacts of the virus itself as well as the xenophobic rhetoric that frames them as carriers of the disease rather than its victims. As our country continues to grapple with the coronavirus, we must ensure that the health of everyone, including migrants, is prioritized and protected
Samantha Ortega is a junior studying history at Barnard College of Columbia University in New York City. She grew up in El Paso, Texas.
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