The rapidly spreading swine flu is prompting calls for the U.S. to close its border with Mexico, where the outbreak originated, but some fear the disease is being exploited for political purposes by immigration foes.
A growing chorus of border-control advocates, including some members of Congress, is calling for the federal government to close U.S.-Mexico border crossings to prevent swine flu from further spreading into the U.S.
Civil rights groups and immigrant advocates, however, say that fanning anti-immigrant sentiment could make immigrants reluctant to seek medical attention.
“The risk of demonizing and stigmatizing a group of people is you risk alienating them and making them afraid to seek health services and that can continue the outbreak,” said Liany Arroyo, director of the Institute for Hispanic Health at the National Council of La Raza, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group.
Mexico has been the epicenter of the swine-flu outbreak. The only flu-related death in the U.S. is a 23-month-old Mexico City boy who died Monday after traveling to Texas.
U.S. Rep. Eric Massa, a Democrat from New York and House Homeland Security Committee member, wants “an immediate and complete closure” of the Mexico border until swine flu is contained.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the Department of Homeland Security should consider all options, “including closing the border if it would prevent further transmission of this deadly virus.”
It was unclear whether McCain was responding to political pressure. Last week, Chris Simcox, founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, announced he will challenge McCain in the 2010 Republican primary.
Since the swine-flu outbreak, Simcox has intensified his call for the immediate deployment of National Guard troops.
President Barack Obama said Wednesday during a televised news conference that health officials see no reason to close the border.
“From their perspective it would be akin to closing the barn door after the horses are out because we already have cases here in the United States,” he said.
Brian Levin, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, said agents at border crossings are trained to watch for possible contagious diseases. He said they have increased surveillance since the swine-flu alert; inspectors in Arizona have not quarantined or detained a single traveler because of flulike symptoms.
Alfredo Gutierrez, who hosts a Spanish-language talk show, said exploiting fear about the swine flu and its prevalence in Mexico is counterproductive.
“The logic that if you can get rid of Mexicans, (swine flu) will all go away” is simplistic logic that will play well to people’s fears, he said. “People are going to say it’s the Mexicans’ fault. The virus has no nationality.”
Carlos Flores Vizcarra, the consul general of Mexico in Phoenix, said that while a few are trying to link the virus with illegal immigration, most realize that swine flu is a public health issue, not an immigration one.
Contributing: Arizona Republic reporters Dennis Wagner and Dan Nowicki
By Daniel Gonzalez, Yvonne Wingett