‘Aliens’ who carry virus: Xenophobic face of new flu in US

May 6th, 2009 - 2:01 pm ICT by IANS  

Barack Obama By Silvia Ayuso
Washington, May 6 (DPA) The influenza A (H1N1) flu virus came from Mexicans, most likely Mexicans who are in the US illegally: the comment, spiced up with references to Mexicans as “primitive” and as “leeches”, cost Boston radio talk show host Jay Severin his job.The problem is that in the face of a new influenza virus whose consequences are still uncertain, he is not the only one in the US who has started to accuse illegal immigrants, particularly those who hail from Mexico, of being the source of the problem.

Above all, he is not the only one who is using the latest health scare to support anti-immigration rhetoric and a call for closing the border between the US and Mexico.

“Make no mistake about it: Illegal aliens are the carriers of the new strain of human-swine avian flu from Mexico,” said another radio talk show host, Michael Savage.

Savage, who apparently has not yet lost his job, went even further in whipping up public emotions.

“Could this be a terrorist attack through Mexico? Could our dear friends in the radical Islamic countries have concocted this virus and planted it in Mexico knowing that you, (US Homeland Security Secretary) Janet Napolitano, would do nothing to stop the flow of human traffic from Mexico?” he said, in comments quoted in the website Media Matters for America.

The Washington-based NGO National Immigration Forum has monitored the large number of comments of this type that emerged over the past ten days as the fear of an influenza pandemic increased in US media.

“Unfortunately there are people who abuse media power to make money with ignorant messages of fear and racism,” Forum spokeswoman Katherine Vargas told DPA.

“They take advantage of a public health issue to spread lies which only add to the confusion. This is a public health issue, not an immigration issue,” she stressed.

The topic is particularly thorny at a time when illegal immigrants within the US are fighting to resolve their situation, which President Barack Obama has promised to tackle this year.

And yet the fact that the first confirmed death of the new flu virus within the US was a 23-month-old toddler of Mexican origin did not help ease the tension.

The case was confirmed last week and happened in Houston, Texas.

“The child was not a United States citizen,” said local councillor Toni Lawrence. “We need to do things for Houston and not for anybody else.”

For Maria Jimenez, an activist for the rights of immigrants in Houston who works for the organisation Dignidad, the issue is “absurd” but also dramatic, given the awful mistakes that it leads to.

“It is absurd because (the toddler’s family) is not a case of undocumented migrants, and the fact that they refer to that proves that it is a xenophobic reaction more than a reality,” Jimenez said.

She had been in contact with the dead toddler’s family.

“What is worrying is that, as always, the anti-immigrant sector uses pressure methods before political sectors, it is an irresponsible attitude on the part of local officials,” said Jimenez, herself of Mexican origin.

“The point is that there are people who are using this to incite anti-immigration anger,” Teresa Puente, a professor of journalism at Columbia College, Chicago, said in the blog Latina Voices on Latin American women.

The fact that almost all the confirmed cases in the US correspond to US citizens does not seem to inhibit the arguments of conservative observers on immigration.

For Maria Jimenez, the issue bears an added risk.

“I am scared that, in the face of this xenophobia, many undocumented immigrants do not dare to go to medical centres (if they have symptoms of the flu), which could be worse,” she noted.

James Rodriguez, Houston councillor in the district where the Mexican boy died, spoke along similar lines.

“At this time, the treatment of all cases is more imperative than any discussion on immigration status,” he said in a statement Friday.

He was reacting to his colleague Lawrence’s comments, saying they had “negatively alarmed many residents throughout the city”.

For Cesar Espinosa, director of the immigrant organisation America para Todos (America for All) in Houston, said only one thing remained to be done for the coming months.

“We will have to work with the community and show that we do not bring microbes,” he said shrugging his shoulders.

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