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The Foreignness of Disease

by Hugo Amador

The 20th and 21st centuries met the United States with revolutionary, innovative socio-political transformations tangent with new advancements in medical diagnosis and treatment. However, the rise in anti-immigrant propaganda in the mid-1950s propagated a narrative, or question rather, against immigrant populations and their health here in America: are immigrants backtracking our success by bringing disease to the United States?

Despite the transcendence toward more effective measures to treat acute and chronic disease, immigrants in the United States have continually been associated with contagion. Anti-immigrant rhetoric regarding endemic diseases among these groups have developed etiological stigmas of physical and societal ills.

The dawn of the 1980s faced the rise of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. In that same decade, amidst public demands and pressures, the senate and president Ronald Regan passed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. This legislation made it illegal for employers to hire

illegal immigrants and further fueled distrust against all immigrant groups alike, illegal or not. The growing fears of the AIDS epidemic intertwined with distrust against immigrant groups led the public eye to direct blame and risk towards immigrant individuals.

At the time, those seeking refugee status in the United States had to submit to an HIV test, while those wishing to take up permanent residence while testing positive for HIV were banned. Dr. Paul Spiegel, director of the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health described that “There is no evidence to show that migrants are spreading [any kind] of disease. That is a false argument used to keep migrants out.” said Dr. Spiegel.

Dr. Spiegel was one among a group of commissioners who tackled a two-year analysis on migration trends and models to determine whether immigration into the United States was spreading disease. In their study they found that immigrants are far less likely than other groups to suffer or die from the more prominent causes of death in the United States. Those being heart disease, cancer, and respiratory diseases. Even among diseases like HIV, data from Dr. Spiegel’s project formulated that they generally remain enclosed within immigrant communities and stray away from the overall population.

An additional monumental study published in The Lancet concluded a worldwide immigration study that dates back to as far as 1994, which supported that immigration does not bring new diseases into host countries, or spreads old diseases. Most of those migrating to the United States originate from countries that have higher vaccination rates compared to the U.S. for all forms of diseases, including measles, diphtheria, and polio. In fact, both studies have concluded that immigrant populations correlate with healthier host countries.

Hugo Amador is an undergraduate student at Cornell University. He is currently studying cellular & molecular biology, journalism, and Latin American studies. After being born and raised in Honduras, Hugo moved to the United States in flee against gang violence where he has worked with many organizations in research/advocacy – primarily towards immigrant and refugee populations. He has given many TEDx talks, having his talks published with global organizations, and has also worked on clinical research within immigrant populations in the New York metropolitan area along with an infectious disease team. Hugo is the recipient of prestigious and competitive academic fellowships, such as the Cornell Commitment Fellowship, and is the founder of Hugo’s Movement, a not-for-profit that advocates for the access to equitable healthcare, education, and liberty of victims of war and gang violence, primarily immigrant children and adolescents. Hugo can be reached at haa45@cornell.edu.

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