The non-immigrant visa proclamation is the latest step toward self-destructive othering

The non-immigrant visa proclamation is the latest step toward self-destructive othering
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The Trump administration’s announcement earlier this week of the extension of a visa ban to cover non-immigrant visas including H-1B, H-2B and some J and L visas resulted in opposition from leaders in science and commerce, who claimed this would make the U.S. less competitive, hampering science, education, economic growth and job creation.

The presidential proclamation, entitled “Proclamation Suspending Entry of Aliens Who Present a Risk to the U.S. Labor Market Following the Coronavirus Outbreak,” claims that to allow such “aliens” to enter the country would be “detrimental to the interests of the United States.” This is in contrast to the opinion of most experts, including the editorial pages of reliably business-friendly newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, who suggest that this proclamation would in itself be harmful to the U.S. economy. We agree that this move is self-defeating for a U.S. economy already in dire straits.

However, from our perspective, that is not the central concern that this proclamation occasions. 

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This latest announcement from the Trump administration is an extension of policies of repeated, self-destructive “othering.” These policies have had ramifications for the personal, professional and political lives of people living in this country, and are intimately linked with the three concurrent crises currently facing the U.S.: an unprecedented pandemic, record unemployment and widespread civil unrest in response to systemic racism.

There is much that underlies these challenges, but we suggest that each of these can be tied to our inability to perceive our fundamental common humanity and to a reactive and short-sighted leadership that seeks to double down in this denial by scapegoating “the other.” This is mirrored in this most recent announcement. 

Why do we say this?

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the U.S. even as it abates in much of Europe, in part because the U.S. has a disproportionately large number of marginalized and disadvantaged populations, who are often stigmatized as “the other.” African Americans and Latinx Americans face racial discrimination in education and employment and in accessing justice and basic opportunity. Widespread, long-standing and reflected in the killing of George Floyd, this discrimination shapes health at the population level through poorer health and lower life expectancy, leaving affected populations with fewer assets with which to weather gaps in employment, less ability to work remotely and a greater risk of becoming unemployed as the economic crisis broadened. Structural racism is the very definition of a home-grown problem, one that can be addressed through policy and political will. Instead, the disparate outcomes observed have been framed repeatedly, as in this most recent proclamation, as being because of “the other,” or the “alien.” 

In fact, COVID-19 has demonstrated the truism that health is a social good. My health depends on your health, yours on mine and both on our collective ability to self-isolate. If there are people in this country who through discrimination or stigma cannot self-isolate, seek testing, or obtain treatment, which is not only fundamentally unjust and harmful to them, but harmful to the health of us all.

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No amount of wealth can overcome the fact that containing COVID-19 becomes much harder when segments of the country have been starved of investment in foundational public health services, when undocumented migrants fear seeking testing or treatment in case they are deported or separated from their children and when COVID-19 spreads among the largest prison population in the world. 

“Othering” has not only exacerbated this pandemic, it also helped begin it. In spite of statements to the contrary, the U.S. had ample time to prepare as COVID-19 raged in China, yet the country’s leadership chose to describe this pandemic as a problem of “the other,” noting this was a problem with a Chinese, and then European, epicenter. This destructive othering is perhaps epitomized to our great historical shame, in the “Chinese virus” slur. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The COVID-19 pandemic has similarly shown that poor health anywhere is a threat to health everywhere. It is becoming clear that the life, liberty and happiness of one is predicated on the life, liberty and happiness of all. 

At this time of upheaval, the U.S. stands at a cross-roads. We can continue down the path of self-destructive othering, or we can acknowledge the fact of our essential oneness and refashion our society in ways that reflect it. 

Nason Maani, PhD is a Harkness fellow at the Commonwealth Fund and the Boston University School of Public Health.

Sandro Galea, MD, DrPH is dean and Robert A Knox professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, and co-author of the book, “PAINED: Uncomfortable Conversations about the Public’s Health.”