Blaming immigrants for local woes — they’re taking your jobs, they’re a drain on public assistance programs and making your taxes go up — has long been a staple of Republican campaigns. The new strategy is to blame illegal immigrants for disease outbreaks in America, when there is no evidence to support this.
In spontaneous remarks during his State of the State address last week, Gov. Paul LePage tied these immigrants to a costly uptick in hepatitis C, HIV and tuberculosis.
“But this is the problem with some of the illegals that are here today,” the governor said. “When a refugee comes here from a foreign country, they get a medical assessment and we know their health. But when they are here illegally, they don’t get medical assessments.
“And one thing that we don’t want to see is the uptick in hepatitis C, HIV and tuberculosis, but it is here. We are dealing with it. And it is very costly.” These remarks were not included in the written version of his speech. He made similar comments in October, days before the November election. “I have been trying to get the president to pay attention to illegals in our country,” LePage told reporters then. “Because there is a spike in hepatitis C, tuberculosis, HIV, and it is going on deaf ears.”
The governor is partially right about an uptick in some diseases, but there is no evidence that those who enter the United State illegally are responsible.
Data compiled by the Maine Center for Disease Control show that last year, there were 30 cases of acute hepatitis C in Maine, an increase from the five-year average of less than 10 per year. There was also an increase in HIV to 60 new cases last year.
A 2013 year-end report from the Maine CDC provides a more detailed look at disease rates for the prior decade. In 2013, there were eight people in Maine with acute hepatitis C, down from a high of 12 in 2011. The number of newly reported cases of chronic hepatitis C rose from 1,142 in 2010 (the first year the data is available) to 2,165 in 2013. The report provides no information about the nationality or birthplace of those infected but stresses that drug use is a major risk factor.
In 2013, there were 39 newly reported cases of HIV, the lowest during the previous decade. The 60 cases reported in 2014 are near the high of 64 reported in 2007.
Tuberculosis is a disease that is more prevalent among immigrants, particularly from Africa. These immigrants, however, are likely to be refugees or asylum seekers; they are not among those who entered the country illegally.
The number of new TB cases in Maine is small and varied widely by year from a low of eight in 2010 to a high of 20 in 2004; there were 15 new cases in 2013. Of these, seven were in people who were born in another country. There were also 433 cases of latent TB, with 82 percent of those infected born in another country, according to the CDC report. Those with latent TB cannot spread the disease to other people, and they show no symptoms of the disease. The most cases were found in people from Congo, Somalia, Burundi, Angola and Iraq. Three quarters of immigrants who enter the U.S. illegally come from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. These countries accounted for just three of the cases of latent TB in Maine reported in 2013.
Nationally, the number of cases of TB has declined dramatically, from more than 84,000 cases in 1953 to fewer than 10,000 in 2013. The number of cases has steadily dropped since 2000, even as the number of immigrants in the United States illegally has grown from about 8.5 million in 2000 to 11.4 million in 2012.
Infectious diseases are a concern in Maine, especially among the homeless and those with low incomes. Erroneously blaming these diseases on illegal immigrants doesn’t help solve the problem.