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Some Republicans Claimed Migrants Fueled A COVID-19 Surge. Doctors Say It's Not True

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The rate of COVID infections is rising across much of the South. And while some Republicans blame this latest wave on migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, doctors say there's little evidence to back that up. To some observers, it all feels like the latest chapter in a long history of scapegoating immigrants, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: If you've been watching Fox News, you've probably heard this theory a lot from Texas Senator Ted Cruz...

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TED CRUZ: They are releasing COVID-positive illegal immigrants into our communities, and they're driving...

ROSE: ...Texas Governor Greg Abbott...

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GREG ABBOTT: ...Allowing free pass into the United States of people with a high probability of COVID and then spreading that COVID up in our communities...

ROSE: ...And Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

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RON DESANTIS: You have over 100 different countries where people are pouring through. I can tell you whatever variants are around the world, they're coming across that southern border.

ROSE: The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, and other right-leaning commentators, have echoed the same argument, blaming large numbers of migrants crossing the southern border, and in turn, the Biden administration for the latest spike in COVID cases. But most public health experts say migrants are not the problem here. Migrants are no more likely to have the coronavirus than any other travelers who are crossing the southern border or anyone living in COVID hotspots in the U.S. The real problem, doctors say, is the number of unvaccinated Americans.

MICHELE HEISLER: This is not a border issue. It is not a migrant issue.

ROSE: Dr. Michele Heisler is with Physicians for Human Rights. She says the places with the highest positivity rates are not near the border or in the parts of the U.S. where migrants are heading. Instead, Heisler says, they tend to be places with the lowest vaccination rates and where governors have opposed mask mandates.

HEISLER: They're just trying to divert attention from the actual measures that we need to take - you know, asking people to wear masks and socially distance and take care of themselves and their loved ones. And it's baffling to me that instead of trying to protect lives, they're trying to create a scapegoat.

ROSE: At the same time, it is true that migrants are crossing the southern border in unusually high numbers, especially in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. And a growing number of them do have COVID. That's according to Dr. Ivan Melendez, the health authority in Hidalgo County, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley.

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IVAN MELENDEZ: We're mirroring exactly what's going on in the rest of the country and most of the world.

ROSE: At a press conference last week, Melendez said there is a risk of unvaccinated migrants spreading the virus. But he emphasized that they pose no more or less of a risk than anyone else who is unvaccinated.

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MELENDEZ: The positivity rate in the migrants that are coming in are almost exactly as the positivity rate is here. Is this the pandemic of the migrants? No. It's a pandemic of the unvaccinated.

NATALIA MOLINA: As infection rates go up, as death rates go up, the scapegoating will go up.

ROSE: Natalia Molina teaches American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. She says there's a long history in the U.S. of falsely blaming immigrants for bringing diseases with them, from Chinese immigrants in California more than a century ago to Central Americans and others at the border today.

MOLINA: This is a pattern we've seen for 150 years of medical scapegoating, of medical racism in which we blame disease outbreaks on immigrants in place of really looking at other factors - our own behaviors.

ROSE: Molina says it's always been easier for politicians to blame people from somewhere else instead of their own constituents or themselves. And there's no reason to think that will change anytime soon.

Joel Rose, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TREMOR'S "CARACOL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.