By JESSE WASHINGTON
AP National Writer
The swine flu virus has infected the immigration debate, with talk show comments like "fajita flu" and "illegal aliens are the carriers" drawing vehement protests from Hispanic advocates.
The volatile immigration issue had cooled off on talk shows and in the blogosphere as the presidential election and economic crisis unfolded. Now, some are using the spread of the virus to renew arguments that immigration from Mexico is a threat to America.
There have been no reports of swine flu leading to incidents of discrimination or profiling of Hispanics. But some Hispanics say racist anti-immigration rhetoric fueled the recent rise in hate crimes against Latinos, and they want to prevent another surge.
Since the virus began to spread, talk radio host Michael Savage has said the Mexican border should be closed immediately and that "illegal aliens are the carriers." Another radio personality, Neal Boortz, has suggested calling the virus the "fajita flu," and CNN's Lou Dobbs called it the "Mexican flu," according to the liberal watchdog group Media Matters.
Boston radio host Jay Severin was suspended indefinitely for calling Mexican immigrants "criminaliens" and emergency rooms "condos for Mexicans" during a discussion about swine flu. A member of a New York City commission on women's issues, Betsy Perry, apologized for blogging that Mexico might need to "get a grip on its banditos" and other flu-related remarks.
In an interview, Savage, who says he has a Ph.D in epidemiology and human nutrition from the University of California-Berkeley, said his remarks were based on science.
"The first rule of epidemiology is to find the epicenter of the disease and close it off," he said. "This has nothing to do with race and everything to do with epidemiology. Viruses do not discriminate."
The World Health Organization does not recommend closing borders, saying that would have little effect, if any, on stopping the virus from spreading. President Barack Obama called the idea "closing the barn door after the horses are out."
What some call science, others call racism.
"Using fears over a serious and ongoing public health issue to demonize immigrants is incredibly low and incredibly cynical, not to mention completely unsubstantiated," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. "Some of these comments are overtly racist and have no place in our public discourse."
Liany Arroyo, director of the National Council of La Raza's Institute for Hispanic Health, said some were trying to exploit the virus "as a mechanism to stir fear."
"This situation is not about immigration, it's about health," she said. "We're all in this together."
But fear is not a rational beast. History is rife with unfounded health scares, some as recent as the 1980s, when Haitians were banned from donating blood in the United States during the early stages of the AIDS epidemic.
So, for anyone who looks Mexican, today's casual cough can turn into humiliation.
In Wilmington, N.C., construction worker Juan Mendoza said he was "working for these rich people ... the other day, and they kept asking me and my co-worker if we were sick. It made me feel bad. Like it's our fault?"
Moises Fernandez, a Raleigh, N.C., resident originally from Tamaulipas, Mexico, said no Americans have openly offended him. "But I know what they're thinking," said the 24-year-old construction worker. "You can tell with how they look at you."
The immigration debate exploded in 2007 when President George W. Bush proposed an overhaul that would have legalized millions of illegal immigrants. Talk radio led the charge against the idea, calling it "amnesty," and the legislation failed to pass. Bush then increased border enforcement and workplace raids, further inflaming tension.
There were 830 Hispanic victims of hate crimes in 2007, the most recent year for which FBI statistics are available, up from 819 in 2006 and 595 in 2003. Hate-crime charges were filed in three recent high-profile killings of Latinos. That led to calls for a new federal law, and the House passed a bill last Wednesday.
Now, with Mexican drug violence seeping across the border, Obama backing a path to citizenship for the 12 million illegal immigrants, and the new swine flu, the ingredients for another explosion are assembled.
Associated Press writers Don Babwin in Chicago and Barbara Rodriguez in Raleigh contributed to this report.