May 1, 2009 / 5:07 AM / 10 years ago

Flu sharpens tone of U.S. immigration debate

PHOENIX (Reuters) - A new strain of flu has stirred a heated debate in the United States about immigration, an emotional topic that is never far from the surface in this country of migrants.

The swine flu has killed up to 176 people in Mexico. North of the border in Texas, the outbreak killed a Mexican toddler and it has sickened scores of people in several other states.

“People always want to find a culprit, and it’s easy to target people who can’t really defend themselves,” said Carlos Garcia, a Hispanic activist in Phoenix.

In recent days, at least three U.S. congressmen called for travel across the Mexico border to be stopped or restricted to prevent the spread of the virus — a measure the government has said would be ineffective.

Syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin blamed the spread of “contagious diseases” on “uncontrolled immigration” in a blog, and other conservative talk show hosts made similar claims.

In response, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists urged the media to be “fair and prudent” when covering the flu and resist scapegoating Mexican immigrants.

“Immigrants, of course, have long been favorite and convenient scapegoats for some for everything from high taxes to infectious diseases,” it said in a statement issued on Wednesday. “Facts haven’t much mattered.”

The NAHJ noted U.S. citizens also cross the border. There are more than 4,000 weekly flights from the United States to Mexico, and about 80 percent of visitors to Mexico last year came from the United States.

DAMAGE TO PROSPECTS FOR REFORM?

Despite the spread of the virus, President Barack Obama has remained committed to comprehensive immigration reform that would include tightening border controls and offering legal status to many of the 12 million illegal immigrants living in the shadows.

In a news conference on Wednesday, Obama said he would continue to seek a legislative framework for reform this year.

“We can’t continue with a broken immigration system. It’s not good for anybody,” he said.

Immigration reform advocates believe the president’s prospects for reviving the issue this year remain on track.

“Politically I don’t think that next week or next month is going to be a good time to be trying to pass an immigration reform bill” said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national employers’ coalition.

“But as people think this through and get over that first rush of panic, they are going to realize that this is an argument for more effective control and regulation that only comprehensive reform can provide,” she added.

Hispanic activists believe dialogue will continue and aim to push ahead with marches advocating the immigration reform on Friday in California and other parts of the country.

“I hope that Americans are smart and they are humane and that they will see that a public health concern has nothing to do with what we believe is social justice.” said Jorge Mario Cabrera Valladares, of the Center for Human Immigrants Rights of Los Angeles.

“The immigration reform dialogue should continue in spite of what we’re facing now.”

Editing by Mary Milliken and Alan Elsner

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