Nativism in Swine's Clothing

06/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As H1N1 hysteria peaked in the first days of May, Mexicans in U.S. border areas had an extra symptom to worry about: the tide of swine flu phobia turning against them.

On the eve of what was meant to be May Day empowerment, José Ramón from Sonora was fretting the "general fear" throughout Tucson would have ramifications for migrant workers like him. "This is just another of the things they will say..." he worried, making use of the hand sanitizer being offered around at his coordinated day labor pick-up spot.

It unfortunately wasn't just talk show whackos drawing the tenuous link between migrants from Mexico and the spread of the H1N1 virus ("swine flu" turned out to be politically incorrect. Israel is going with "Mexican flu"). "Swine flu underscores the need for illegal immigration enforcement," reads a statement from Arizona's Maricopa County Sherriff Joe Arpaio -- whose anti-immigrant hysteria-mongering, granted, has earned him national notoriety and a couple of federal investigations. As of April 30, Arpaio's deputies were taking to the field masked and gloved against the disease of the "illegal aliens" -- reinforcing a link for the public with an image worth a thousand words.

While top officials were clear throughout that we wouldn't "close the border," any mention should emphasize the wrongheadedness, beyond the unfeasibility, of such a step, to stem this rash of territorialists manipulating paranoia to advance an anti-immigrant agenda.

Maybe they deemed the supposed links between between illegality and infectiousness thin to the point of benign: "[T]he very nature of illegal immigration -- evading authorities, and unchecked and untraceable contact with different people -- actively promotes the spread of a communicable disease," warns Sherriff Joe. Whereas every contact made by each Cancún Spring Breaker was traced? And uh oh: Is Joe inadvertently arguing for universal access to check-ups? The opportunism of other opponents of immigration outed itself yet quicker: Surely it's dangerous for so many potentially contagious Hispanics to gather for their pesky May Day marches...

U.S. Border Patrol was less concerned. A spokesman for the Tucson sector reported business as usual. Apparently they who shan't march together can still be detained together: The San Diego sector was letting the 47-person busloads of apprehended aliens accumulate in "limited" holding cells as always. As for practices on those tinted-windowed deportation buses back across the line, the government can't now or ever speak for that: that's contracted out to Wackenhut.

At the Federal District Court in Tucson, the last week of April saw suspension of "Operation Streamline" -- the trial en masse of up to 70 migrants for the felony of illegal entry, shuffled through daily just as fast as their shackles and bellychains allow -- but it was back on as of the 30th.

Focus on illegal enterers tellingly ignores the tens of hundreds of thousands of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border through legal points of entry every day. Border towns like Nogales, Sonora, are homes to countless who live their lives on both sides of the border, crossing a handful of times weekly for work or to see family in Nogales, Arizona, on a limited-mileage "laser visa." The economies of these cities are interlinked and co-dependent. Respectful of this, ports of entry were operating pretty exactly as always throughout the loudest swine whine. Those entering the U.S. got a handout.

The federal government knows closing the border is an inoperable idea, strongest in the minds of those far from it -- and that the economic repercussions would be a guaranteed level 6 alert. The focus should be on education and vaccine development, and above all panic-tempering and avoidance of scapegoating of the kind that keeps people from seeking help for fear of stigma.

In Obama's words, to worry about the border after the outbreak would be like "closing the barn door after the horses are out."

Now let's quit blaming the horses for what the swine brought.

This post first appeared in Mexico's The News.