Commentary: A virus, not an immigrant
SAN DIEGO -- Some of what is being said about the possible swine flu pandemic that seems to have originated in Mexico demonstrates that ignorance is infectious.
Among the infected: Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Calif., who recently proposed that President Obama consider restricting travel between the United States and Mexico and prepare to close the border to "ensure this virus does not spread any more than it might already have."
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, about half a million people move between the two countries each day -- and that's just at the San Ysidro port of entry south of San Diego, the world's busiest border crossing. The economic cost of restricting cross-border travel would be enormous. And to what end? As Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently noted, "You would close the border if you thought you could contain disease -- the spread of the disease, but the disease already is in a number of states within the United States so the containment issue doesn't really play out."
Also infected is CNN commentator Jack Cafferty, who irresponsibly spouted off this week about how Americans would be much safer had we secured the border after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, because of "all these illegal immigrants who we let come in, ... (some of whom) may have brought this in."
The operative phrase being "may have" since we don't know how the disease -- which, as of this writing, has infected at least 64 people in the U.S. and more than 1,000 in Mexico -- came to this country. Although Cafferty used the word "secure," from the sound of it, what he really wants is to "seal" the border. With 2,000 miles between Brownsville, Texas, and San Diego, good luck. Also, for those eager to blame the spread of the disease on illegal immigrants, the odds don't add up the way they might have a few years ago. Illegal immigration into the United States is down dramatically thanks to the sour U.S. economy. The Los Angeles Times reported last month that arrests along the U.S.-Mexico border have decreased 24 percent from last year, representing the lowest level of apprehension since 1975.
Meanwhile, studies show that for those illegal immigrants who are already in the United States, very few of them go back and forth between the two countries. More often, they stay on this side of the border rather than pay additional smuggling fees or risk their lives trying to re-enter the United States. In fact, it's just as likely that, if someone did indeed carry the swine flu into the United States from Mexico, it was someone who could travel freely between the countries -- such as a U.S. citizen or legal immigrant. In New York, American students who went to Cancun for spring break fell ill. Now there have been at least 28 confirmed cases of swine flu.
Given the large quantities of fear and xenophobia that Americans digested during the immigration debate, maybe it was too much to ask that we could confront an international health crisis originating in Mexico without slipping back into old habits. We could have guessed that some Americans would be trying to convince themselves that the United States can shut out Mexico -- and, if need be, the rest of the world. Just as we could have guessed that opportunists would seize on the swine flu outbreak to try to bolster their contention that the U.S.-Mexico border is porous.
But in a situation such as this, what do those words even mean? When I visit the border, I see steel bars and fences and walls -- traditional barricades that make immigration restrictionists feel good but which an airborne virus would easily go through, around or over. And, as Napolitano pointed out, even if we do a better job of stopping people from entering the United States illegally -- something we should do anyway as a moral and practical matter -- we still have to confront the reality of as many as 12 million illegal immigrants who are already here. Not to mention all the legal immigrants and U.S. citizens who might frequently travel back and forth to Mexico.
So, let's guard against the ugliness and resist the temptation to reach for simple solutions. And let's deal with one issue at a time, leaving illegal immigration for another day. After all, that debate always seems to produce fear and anxiety. And, as Americans try to contain an outbreak of swine flu, we already have ample stockpiles of both.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.