Scapegoating Immigrants

Whataboutism about a visit to Whataburger (and other tales of obfuscation).

“Whataburger Flag” by John M. P. Knox is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

A headline from a 2019 piece (an interview with historian Erika Lee) from PRI’s The World reads a follows: For centuries, migrants have been said to pose public health risks. They don’t.

The introduction of that piece goes on to state:

The trope that migrants bring diseases that threaten immigrant-receiving countries is among the most pervasive myths touted in anti-immigrant discourse, and one justification of racist and humiliating policies directed toward immigrants throughout history. 

Though there are some historical examples — such as the spread of disease from European colonizers — decades of research have debunked the idea that modern immigrants writ large pose an extreme health risk. But the rhetoric remains prevalent. Fox News commentators, such as Laura Ingraham and Marc Siegel, described immigration as a source of disease and national security risk, pointing to outbreaks of illness in immigrant detention facilities. 

The interview discusses Lee’s work and her book on this subject.

If one prefers an overview of the topic without any Covid-era context, there is this 2002 Milbank Quarterly Review piece from 2002 entitled The Foreignness of Germs: The Persistent Association of Immigrants and Disease in American Society.

The intro paragraph notes:

Anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy have often been framed by an explicitly medical language, one in which the line between perceived and actual threat is slippery and prone to hysteria and hyperbole.

And the conclusion of the piece reiterates:

Metaphors of germs and contagion have never lurked far beneath the surface of such rationales. As we have shown, more often than not these arguments have been motivated by, and closely intertwined with, ideologies of racialism, nativism, and national security rather than substantiated epidemiological or medical observations. Not surprisingly, these attitudes have deterred rather than encouraged many immigrants from seeking medical care. As the 20th century came to a close, the associations between immigration and disease remained powerful and prevalent.

All of which is a prelude to the Governor of Florida this week reacting to criticism by President Biden of governors who don’t want to engage in mitigation policies vis-a-vis Covid-19.

These clips generate at least four thoughts

One, if DeSantis is worried about immigrants being infected with Covid-19, and especially about said immigrants being able to move about freely in the US, would he not prefer that they be masked? Or is he requesting that the infection isolate from the broader population? What are his views on infected citizens and legal residents in Florida? Why is he banning masks in classrooms in his state?

Two, even if we stipulate that his concern about the southern border is genuine, what does that have to do with hospitalizations in the state of Florida? My degree is not in geography, but I am fairly certain Florida does not border Mexico nor, indeed, does it have a southern land border with any country whatsoever.

Three, this is simply faux outrage whataboutism, which then leads me to Whataburger.

To wit via TPM: How Right-Wingers Used A Single Whataburger Meal To Blame Immigrants For COVID.

In a filing in federal court Monday, the state of Texas argued that Gov. Greg Abbott (R) was justified in ordering state troopers to pull over anyone they thought was driving undocumented immigrants — because of one family’s meal at a Whataburger in South Texas. 

Immigrant families, the state said, posed a deadly threat to Texans. 

“Consider, for example, a family of migrants released in La Joya, Texas,” lawyers for the state wrote. “The family went to a public restaurant and began ‘coughing and sneezing without covering their mouths.'” The family in question told police they had COVID-19, the filing noted.

The federal judge handling the case, a Bush appointee, wasn’t convinced. On Wednesday, she temporarily paused Abbott’s order, saying that it was the governor’s order, not immigrants, that risked “exacerbating the spread of COVID-19.” 

The fury over the Whataburger meal conveniently ignores some key issues in Texas, including that localities are still forbidden by the governor from instituting mask mandates, and that Texas’ vaccination rate lags behind the rest of the country. As the Washington Post reported recently, “what the hardest-hit states do have in common is relatively low vaccination rates,” not large numbers of new arrivals.

Nonetheless, that singular meal has now become a national anti-immigrant talking point. 

The piece goes on to back up that claim.

DeSantis is almost certainly building off of Abbot’s fearmongering about Covid-infected immigrants.

It is all a combo of scapegoating and whataboutism. And, not too surprisingly, there is no intellectual consistency. If Covid-infected persons in Whataburgers are problematic (and they are) then focus on masking, isolation as needed, and vaccination.

And, by the way,

Local health officials in the area have tried, so far unsuccessfully, to push back against the anti-immigrant rhetoric. 

“They’re not posing more of a danger than myself, I’ve been in seven COVID units today,” Ivan Melendez, the Hidalgo County health authority, said at a press conference Thursday, stressing that the COVID-19 positivity rate among recent immigrants was roughly the same as among Texans overall. 

Melendez added: “Is this the pandemic of the migrants? No, it’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” 


In fact, in Hidalgo County, home to La Joya, recent immigrants aren’t sicker than U.S. residents.

“The positivity rate in the migrants that are coming in are almost exactly the positivity rates here,” Melendez, the Hidalgo County health authority, said at Thursday’s press conference. 

And, largely left unsaid in the La Joya story: Texans who aren’t undocumented immigrants — and therefore, who aren’t the targets of a right-wing talking point — have largely been allowed to freely spread the virus, without any requirements to wear masks or be vaccinated. 

Fourth, whenever a politician starts trying to scapegoat a vulnerable population, especially by emphasizing their otherness and their alleged dirtiness or their sickness I can’t help but think of Nazi Germany. One may point out that this may be a bit dramatic and perhaps even simplistic, but whenever I first learned the term “scapegoating” it was as a child in the context of Hitler and the Jews, so the association in my mind is easy to make and quite strong. Whoever taught me that, and it was either my mother or a teacher when I was fairly young, also taught me that scapegoating is wrong.

Acting like the threat from Covid is really about dirty, diseased immigrants is just a repeat of the history I cited above. It is gross and should be unacceptable. And, I think that politicians who resort to this kind of behavior ought to be ashamed of themselves, although I am certainly not naive enough to think that they will be.

Adult me knows that this is neither new behavior nor is it behavior that is ever likely to cease to exist on the face of the planet Earth. The little boy in me that learned about scapegoating, just wants people to cut it out, in that indignant way a child thinks people doing the wrong thing should just stop it.

Adult me also comes close to weeping knowing that the kind of rhetoric DeSantis and Abbot are using works on a lot of people.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Health, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    I guess DeSantis would like it if the Cuban immigrants went back to Havana…

    I’ll second you point about the Nazis in Germany scapegoating the Jews and Roma.

  2. charon says:

    It’s not just Abbott and DeSantis, blaming immigrants is the new party line all over the GOP pols and Conservative media, I have a huge number of retweets and other links I have saved, just do not feel up to posting it all.

    It’s basically a diversion to duck responsibility, finger point at Biden etc.

  3. Kathy says:

    I can’t say I can wrap my head around it, but it’s the same thing as calling COVID a Democratic hoax, a Chinese bioweapon, and the infamous lab leak theory. The point isn’t to combat the spread, but to find someone to blame for it.

    What good that does, I’ve no idea. As I’ve said before, even if SARS-CoV-2 were any of the above things, or it were carried by immigrants, then the means to stop the spread are the same: masks, distance, hygiene, and above all else vaccines.

  4. Jax says:

    I sincerely hope we are vaccinating every immigrant who shows up, whether they get asylum or sent back. If these jerks here won’t take them, put a shot in every arm that presents itself.

  5. Mimai says:

    Great post Steven! This is the epitome of scapegoating. And as you note in closing, this is very (and sadly) effective. Scapegoating is built into our collective DNA. In this case, it’s just tailored to a specific sub-population of “us.” Indeed, it’s so expertly crafted that I can’t help but think that social science experts are consulting on it.

  6. Jay L Gischer says:

    It’s ages old and effective. And yet, it isn’t going to keep a single person from getting covid. Meanwhile FL has a very high case rate compared to other states, states such as CA which we know is a hotbed of immigrants.

    The hammer is coming down on DeSantis. It looks to me like he knows this and is scared.

  7. Ken_L says:

    I’m afraid Steven is demonstrating his under-estimation of the Trump Cult with his point about Florida not having a southern border. Trump Cult websites are littered with confident assertions that Democrats are deliberately flying infected “illegals” into Florida to make DeSantis look bad.

  8. de stijl says:

    Last week I hooked up with a friend and we ventured up to my favorite camping spot in the Black Hills. Met up with four other folks coming in from Minnesota.

    We could have made faster time west on I80 then north on I29, but we cut the corner and went state and county roads. I sort of made that a condition, actually. I love the big empty.

    When you drive through the center of the country it is clear that there a population situation. Many small towns get the double whammy of old folks dying off and young adults fleeing to Minneapolis or Denver or Chicago. Anywhere is better than here. Anywhere less boring. Small farming towns in the center of the country are dying.

    Absent Mexican and Central American backfill immigration, many of these towns would be a generation away from the like of Nevada mining ghost towns gone busto.

    The Great Plains is emptying out.

    Our governor is blaming immigrants for the Delta spike. After denying and obstructing and sticking her head in sand for a year.

    I want her figurative head on a spike next election day.

  9. Teve says:

    @Jay L Gischer: who could have guessed that policies pandering to the dumbest MFers on the planet would be less than successful?