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As Swine Flu Spreads, So Does Backlash Against Mexico

New America Media, News Analysis, Gebe Martinez Posted: Apr 29, 2009

Editor's Note: It seems like swine flu is increasingly becoming a political football, with the right wing using the crisis to whip up opposition to immigration from South of the border. NAM contributor Gebe Martinez analyzes what's being said in different circles about this.

In this current worldwide swine flu outbreak, two sources are shouldering most of the blame: pigs and Mexico.

Interestingly, there seems to be a louder, broader public defense of pigs than of Mexico.

During a Senate hearing Tuesday on the disease that first spread in Mexico and has claimed dozens of lives, including at least one in the United States, federal officials insisted swine flu is an incorrect, simplified label of a complex virus that should properly be called H1N1, even though it contains swine genes.

The imprecise nickname leads some to think pork is unsafe and should be taken off the international trade shelves, according to government officials. This is not a food safety issue. Pork is safe to eat, Dr. John R. Clifford, a deputy administrator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture told the Senate.

The same day, other officials warned foreign governments not to engage in behavior that could hurt the global economy.

Pigs are a major sector of the U.S. agricultural economy.

Mexico, however, is a different story, especially in conservative circles, where this latest crisis is being used to whip up opposition to immigration from South of the border.

Immigration restrictionists view Mexico as a drain on the U.S. economy, national security, culture and now, welfare.

As the Obama administration works with the Mexican government to contain this serious virus and has tried to do so without assessing blame conservatives are fanning the flames of fear.

Freedom Watch, a group that promotes individual freedom and liberty, has theorized that the Mexican Swine Flu was not accidental, but an act of biological warfare. What could be more clever than planting the seed in neighboring Mexico and allowing it to spread to the United States? asked the groups founder, Larry Klayman.

Another conservative organization, Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, said President Obama should deploy military troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to stop illegal immigration and stop non-essential traffic by land and air except for emergencies and product delivery.

We have thousands of illegal immigrants entering America each night and we cant contain or slow the progression of the latest Mexican outbreaks with that happening, according to a statement by ALIPAC spokesman William Gheen.

Nationally syndicated radio talk show host Michael Savage recently blamed illegal immigrants for the virus, according to Media Matters, which monitors conservative commentary. Make no mistake about it: Illegal aliens are the carriers of the new strain of human-swine avian flu from Mexico, Savage was quoted as saying during a recent broadcast. They are a perfect mule perfect mules for bringing this virus into America.

With the list of attackers growing daily, the National Council of La Raza fired back.

Its not surprising that some are implying that all immigrants are a threat to our health thats standard fare on the hate group circuit, said NCLR president Janet Murguia. Ironically, the very act of attempting to demonize and stigmatize entire groups, and even entire countries, is likely to impede these and other critical steps that the authorities are taking to protect all Americans from the spread of the flu.

The health scare shows how interdependent the U.S.-Mexico relationship is.

President Obama underscored that point Wednesday during a town hall meeting in Arnold, Mo. Whether the issue is international terrorism or a possible pandemic, partnership with Mexico is vital for the success of both countries, he said.

Its not just like we can draw a moat around America and say, Im sorry. Dont bother us. Keep your problems outside. It doesnt work that way, the president told his Missouri audience. In this instance, If Mexico has a good, strong public health system that is catching these things early, ultimately thats going to save us money, Obama said.

Panic during a pandemic is common.

In 2003, at a time when China was trying to gain legitimacy in the global community by accelerating its economic development, China and other Asian countries lost billions in travel and trade during the outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) that killed 774 people, mostly in Asia.

During the 1980s, Haitis tourist industry almost disappeared when it was stigmatized as the source of the AIDS epidemic. U.S. agents detained at Guantanamo Bay Haitians who would have qualified as refugees but were denied entry because they or their family members were HIV-positive, despite stiff arguments that such action would not stop the spread of AIDS.

One key difference with Mexico is that it is contiguous to the U.S. and is a source of irritation for Americans who blame Mexico for much of what is wrong with the economy, trade, and illegal drug trafficking.

Never mind that Mexico supplies the labor for menial, lower-paying jobs that Americans do not want; or that the U.S. supplies the demand for the drugs being delivered by the Mexican drug cartel; and that the weapons used by drug traffickers to kill Mexican police and military in the border drug war were made in the U.S.A.

And forget, for the moment, that the first victim of the virus is a young boy who lives in a Mexican village near a pork processing operation co-owned by an American company. (The company says there is no clinical proof that the nearby pig farms were the source of contamination.)

While emphasizing the seriousness of the virus, President Obama has urged calm. The government also advised cancellation of non-essential travel to Mexico. But Mexicos critics continue to press for tougher action.

During the Senate hearing this week, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Texas Republican who is running for governor next year, was concerned that temperatures were not being taken of people before they leave Mexico to enter the U.S.

Agency experts responded that some countries tried that during the SARS epidemic, with little success. Besides, it can take up to five days to get sick after being infected, they added.

Whether or not this latest health scare ends quickly does not matter, as far as Mexicos tourism and trade are concerned, said Kevin Casas-Zamora, a senior policy analyst at the Brookings Institution who studies Latin America.

At any rate, it does not look good for Mexico, Casas-Zamora observed. But those who try to score political points with this issue are denying the value of the close ties between both countries.

Trade flows are so enormous and human flows are so enormous that (closing borders) is just not viable. The fundamentals of the relationship are so strong and so intense that even something like this is not bound to generate a substantive change, Casas-Zamora said.

At least, not until pigs fly.

Gebe Martinez, a veteran Washington journalist, is a regular contributing columnist for Politico and a frequent lecturer and commentator on the policy and politics of Capitol Hill.

Related Articles:

Europe Skeptical on Risk of Bird Flu Pandemic

What Chinese Media Say You Can Do About Bird Flu

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