Checks on Farm Workers ‘Racial Profiling’

Tom Godfrey, Toronto Sun, May 1, 2009

Mexican and Guatemalan farmhands are “racially profiled” and forced to undergo swine flu checks before being allowed to board flights to Canada to work, a Toronto support group says.

Canadians and others flying from Mexico should be forced to undergo two medical checks by two doctors–the same as the farmhands–before being allowed to board flights, according to Justice for Migrant Workers.

The Guatemalans are affected because they leave for Canada from Mexico, said Chris Ramsaroop, a spokesman for the group.

“These workers undergo racial profiling because they’re coming here to work,” he said yesterday. “They are being targeted and it is unfair.”

‘RIDICULOUS’

The Mexican government is in charge of screening the workers before they get here, said Alykhan Velshi, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

“This is an initiative of the Mexican government,” he said. “The checks are being done by Mexican doctors in Mexican government buildings.”

The racial profiling allegations are “a ridiculous accusation,” Velshi said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of migrant workers from across Canada will gather at 11 a.m. tomorrow at 25 Cecil St. to celebrate May Day, an international day of workers’ struggle.

“These vulnerable workers are subjected to some of the worst kinds of rights abuses,” said Wayne Hanley, of the United Food and Commercial Workers. “They are denied access to health services while being forced to work in dangerous or hazardous conditions.”

Last year, more than 20,000 Mexicans came to Canada as temporary foreign workers.


“No contact anywhere with an illegal alien!” conservative talk show host Michael Savage advised his U.S. listeners this week on how to avoid the swine flu. “And that starts in the restaurants” where he said, you “don’t know if they wipe their behinds with their hands!”

And Thursday, Boston talk radio host Jay Severin was suspended after calling Mexican immigrants “criminalians” during a discussion of swine flu and saying that emergency rooms had become “essentially condos for Mexicans.”

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There is even talk of conspiracy. Savage speculated that terrorists are using Mexican immigrants as walking germ warfare weapons. “It would be easy,” he said, “to bring an altered virus into Mexico, put it in the general population, and have them march across the border.”

As more than 140 cases of H1N1 virus, known as swine flu, have been confirmed across the United States–from San Diego to New York City–the growing public health concern has also exposed fear and hate.

Fear and blame are counterproductive and even dangerous in any disease outbreak because the more stigmatized any group feels, the more reluctant people in that group may be to seek medical care. That only helps propagate the disease.

The attempt to scapegoat Mexicans, immigrants and Hispanic Americans is no surprise to Latino rights groups, who are now mobilizing a countereffort.

‘Ignorant beyond the pale’

Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, called such comments “racist and ignorant beyond the pale .  . these so-called commentators shame themselves turning public health concerns into an immigrant bashing fest.”

“What we have seen is that the anti-immigrant groups are using this to shamelessly to promote their agenda,” said Liany Arroyo, director of the Institute for Hispanic Health at the National Council of La Raza.

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The [Dallas Consilio of Hispanic Organizations] has mounted its own education campaign to teach Dallas-area Hispanic audiences proper disease prevention and hygiene techniques. Because many are uninsured and may avoid seeking medical care, the Consilio is also helping them find non-profit clinics and encouraging them to visit these immediately if they develop symptoms rather than waiting until they are severely ill.

As swine flu fears have spread, the backlash has also affected some Mexican restaurants’ business, possibly fueled by disparaging comments like those of Savage questioning the hygiene of workers.

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Blaming ‘the other’

Fearmongering and blame are almost a natural part of infectious disease epidemics, experts say.

“This is a pattern we see again and again,” said Amy Fairchild, chair of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City. “It’s ‘the other,’ the group not seen as part of the nation, the one who threatens it in some way that gets blamed for the disease.”

Often, a disease outbreak is an excuse to vent pre-existing prejudices. “It’s fear of people we do not know or who look different,” said Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan and author of “When Germs Travel: Six Major Epidemics That Have Invaded America Since 1900 and the Fears They Have Unleashed.” “You take the fear of the unknown that already exists and then combine that with a real or perceived threat that is contagious disease and it’s explosive.”

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Americans “have a history of trying to keep ourselves ‘pure,'” Fairchild explained. “You saw it after the Civil War when slaves were denied citizenship, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when we were alarmed over southern and eastern European immigrants. There were fears that they would pollute America’s germ plasm, make us a weak nation of imbeciles.”

Americans have time and again responded to emergencies by clamoring to shut the borders and pull up the bridges.

“I’ve blogged for years about the spread of contagious diseases from around the world into the U.S. as a result of uncontrolled immigration,” conservative columnist Michelle Malkin wrote on her Web site. “9/11 didn’t convince the open-borders zealots to put down their race cards and confront reality. Maybe the threat of their sons or daughters contracting a deadly virus spread from south of the border to their Manhattan prep schools will.” (The cluster of New York school students who first contracted H1N1 brought the virus back from Mexico. The school is in Queens.)

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Fighting racism with information

Blame-the-victim reactions can be fought with clear, accurate information about the disease and about how it is spreading, said Dr. Larry Kline, a San Diego physician and member of the United States-Mexico Border Health Commission. “People get snippets of information here and there, and unfortunately much of it is inaccurate. That makes things ripe for blame and blame and fear never helped anybody.”

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