Last week, as the number of unaccompanied minors reaching the U.S. border from Latin America exceeded 50,000, Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., gave voice to a concern that U.S. immigration opponents have long leveled against the huddled masses yearning to breathe free: that they were breathing diseases into America’s pristine air.
“Reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis are particularly concerning,” he wrote in a letter to the CDC, without ever citing those reports.
That’s because they’re bunk, and they were quickly proven false by medical experts. Most of those diseases have never even been seen in Latin America. None have popped up in the latest wave of parentless immigrants.
It was all part of “a long, sad and shameful tradition in the United States in using fear of disease, contagion and contamination to stigmatize immigrants and foreigners,” according to the head of medical ethics at NYU’s teaching hospital. Gingrey’s accusations, he added, were nothing but “innuendo and fear-mongering.”
And then last Friday — long after the xenophobic rumor was discredited – Gov. Rick Scott’s administration took up this mantle of Medieval medical superstition.
Scott’s state surgeon general shot off an “urgent” letter to federal authorities expressing sweaty nervousness over the threat to “health and safety of Florida communities” posed by “those children from the border who may have come through the flawed federal system.” It was groundless. It was perplexing.
It was typical Rick Scott: Come late to the base-politics party, long after everyone’s started to clean up.
And it was ironic. There is one disease seen in Latin American children with alarming frequency: tuberculosis. Unfortunately, if the Scott administration’s worst immigrant-hysteria fears were to come true and foreign children brought TB to Florida, the state would be ill-prepared.
That’s because Scott shut down Florida’s only TB hospital in 2012, against experts’ advice, and amid a breakout in the state that his administration kept under wraps.
But perhaps Scott has another plan to combat a tuberculosis toddler invasion. He spent Monday evening at a $10,000-a-person Boca fundraiser hosted by the CEO of GEO Group, which runs private prisons and immigrant detention centers, including one in Broward, notorious for poor conditions.
So Florida’s governor runs an administration in discredited nativist theories about immigrant diseases. But he leaves state residents unprepared for the one disease immigrants might possibly carry. Finally, he cozies up to tycoons who make millions imprisoning immigrants.
Perhaps Scott’s immigration fearmongering will help with the angriest or most scared Floridians. But most residents, regardless of their politics, are smarter than that. His is a level of cynical politicking, incompetence, and influence-peddling that can’t be explained by ideology or partisanship.
He doesn’t treat people like this because he’s a conservative or a Republican. He does it because he’s Rick Scott.
Adam Weinstein is a Tallahassee-based senior writer for Gawker. He has worked for the Wall Street Journal, Village Voice, and Mother Jones.