PDA

View Full Version : Immigration and Leprosy - What a connection



tatafo
Jun 21, 2007, 05:48 AM
It is ga ju for immigration debates

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

June 17, 2007
Editorial Observer
When Demagogues Play the Leprosy Card, Watch Out
By LAWRENCE DOWNES
People who want to reform immigration by putting America in lockdown have not been shy about using fear and revulsion to get their point across. Illegal immigrants, they say, are invading the country to reconquer it, to erode our Anglo-Saxon culture and to make us all sick.

Here’s Representative Tom Tancredo, complaining in the Republican presidential debate about pressing 1 for English. (Aliens — they’re in your telephone!) And there’s Lou Dobbs on CNN, helping racist tract-writers to peddle made-up statistics about immigrants and leprosy. (Did the country suddenly have 7,000 cases in three years? No, only a few hundred. But it sure sounds scarier.)

I know at least one person who finds the fear-mongering particularly offensive. She is Nicole Holmes, an American citizen who is a threat to nobody. She is an immigrant, and she has had leprosy.

Ms. Holmes, a cheerful 28-year-old, was born in Trinidad, grew up in Brooklyn and now lives outside Atlanta with her husband, Zakee, and two sons, Aaron, 3, and Andrew, 2. She told me her story by phone recently while her boys ran around the house, tormenting each other. (“Andrew, stop the biting, please,” she said. “Just share the car.”)

Ms. Holmes learned she had leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, when she was 18 and a student at Pace University. Her husband, then in the military, stood by her, taking her to doctor’s appointments and helping her through a difficult treatment complicated by lapses in medical insurance and frequent moves.

She is now fully recovered. She has no signs of the disease except for some scars on her arms where doctors took tissue samples for biopsies. She runs an Internet support group for leprosy patients and doctors, and is a board member of the International Association for Integration, Dignity and Economic Advancement, or IDEA, an organization that works to erase the stigma of leprosy, which it calls “one of the most persistent and pervasive forms of social injustice that society has forced upon its fellow human beings.”

Many people are surprised to learn that leprosy still exists. It is entrenched in parts of the third world, and people with it suffer greatly — often in secret, because their shame is so profound. But leprosy is nothing but a bacterial infection that has been curable for more than 50 years. It is very hard to catch — 95 percent of humans have a natural immunity. Patients are no longer infectious after one treatment, and those who are cured need not fear a relapse.

While the disease has greatly abated around the world, the social side-effects — abuse, discrimination, exile — have not gone away. People with leprosy face obstacles that people with cancer or AIDS do not. Their disease has been feared for millennia. It is in the Bible, linked to sin and uncleanliness and imbedded in the language, as a metaphor for anything loathsome or untouchable.

We think we know about leprosy, but our knowledge is incomplete and full of errors. The leprosy patients we have heard of are superhuman or anonymous. They are either Father Damien of Molokai, who died with the disease, or they are the forgotten Hawaiians he served, who lived in exile and lie by the thousands in unmarked graves.

People with leprosy have learned to be especially wary of writers whose works are often warped by disgust or its sickly cousins, pity and condescension. A recent book, “The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai,” created a furor when its subjects accused the author, John Tayman, of stealing and distorting their biographies. They had the support of historians like Anwei Law, international coordinator of IDEA, who said the book twisted reality for melodrama, beginning with its cover, a photograph of the Amalfi coast of Italy that looks a lot more ominous than the sea cliffs of Hawaii. They begged to be removed from the book. Mr. Tayman, while defending his accuracy and sensitivity, refused.

Between the possibly well-meaning Mr. Tayman and the blundering Mr. Dobbs, who invited a furor by defending grossly exaggerated leprosy statistics — “If we reported it, it’s a fact,” he said — advocates like Ms. Holmes and Ms. Law have their work cut out for them.

It’s not surprising that people who oppose immigration reform would try to harness the powerful fear of leprosy to their cause. It’s true that nations have been destroyed by waves of newcomers carrying exotic diseases — Google “European,” “measles” and “Indian.” But the public threat of leprosy in the United States — a few hundred cases a year in a country of 300 million — is small.

Most of those cases are among immigrants. But it is a grotesque extrapolation to claim that illegal immigration is causing a leprosy epidemic and to follow with the sweeping conclusion that all immigrants are diseased and dangerous. And anti-amnesty hard-liners are just compounding fear-mongering with foolishness when they seek to crack down on illegal immigrants with an enforcement blanket that would keep anyone who might be ill hidden, off the books and away from doctors.

Villagers in rural Brazil, India and Africa, where leprosy and poverty are endemic and medical care is spotty, have understandable reasons to fear the disease. I’m not sure what our excuse is.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/17/opinion/17sun4.html?th&emc=th