Time for an Ellis Island Approach to Immigration

As migrants stream from Central America, through Mexico, toward the southern U.S. border, media coverage focuses only on plight of poor refugees seeking a better life in America. The health of the refugees is never discussed. Are any of them carrying contagious diseases? If so, how many of them and what are they bringing to the U.S.?

The Centers for Disease Control provides the answer.

Studies have identified the importance of cross-border movement in the transmission of various diseases, including HIV, measles, pertussis, rubella, rabies, hepatitis A, influenza, tuberculosis, shigellosis, syphilis, Mycobacterium bovis infection, brucellosis, and foodborne diseases, such as infections associated with raw cheese and produce.

These are all contagious diseases and relatively uncommon in the U.S. Fox News reports, “One-third of migrants in caravan are being treated for health issues” including HIV/AIDS, TB, chickenpox, and lice.

Apart from the diseases above making a resurgence in the U.S., a new one called acute flaccid myelitis, thought to be caused by a virus, is currently in the news. This is a polio-like illness causing permanent arm and leg weakness in children. Polio has been largely eradicated, but now American children are becoming infected. Could it be related to the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants entering the U.S.?

The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons suggests a solution, seemingly obvious except to politicians more interested in scoring political points and damaging President Trump than actually protecting their constituents, the American people. The remedy is simple.

In the past, waves of immigrants from Europe were stopped at Ellis Island, medically examined, and quarantined long enough to be sure they were not incubating a contagious disease. Procedures are less rigorous today, and of course those who enter illegally are not screened at all.

America, once upon a time, was adept at admitting and processing immigrants with potential contagious diseases. Why not look to our experience a century ago at Ellis Island? One website chronicled this process from the Swedish perspective.

Unlike our current porous border where immigrants are welcomed with a red carpet of social welfare benefits, Ellis Island immigration was quite strict. “To arrive to New York and Ellis Island didn’t mean that you knew if you could stay or not in the new country. In front of them waited strenuous and time-consuming controls.”

Inspectors boarded the arriving ships checking for, “Any contagious diseases such as cholera, plague, typhoid, measles and diphtheria.” Those infected wouldn’t be allowed off the ship.

Next came the medical examination where, “The doctors viewed them from above to watch after weakness, heavy breathing (indication of heart problems) and other signs of mental disturbances.”

Then they went to the eye doctor. “They searched for a disease in the eyes called trachoma. This eye disease causes blindness and it can also lead to death.” If they had trachoma, “The immigrant was sent back home again.”

Medical screening served a purpose. Not only did it keep contagious diseases out of America, but it also prevented the medical burden caring for immigrants who required hospitalization or treatment.

Put simply, “If they had other diseases and these were confirmed or if the immigrant was too sick and too weak to manage to work, they were not allowed to enter to the US.” What a novel idea. How many other countries allow sick people to immigrate? From one country’s immigration website, “People coming to Australia have health checks before entering the country as another way to prevent further infectious diseases.”

Children didn’t get special treatment or consideration as they do now.

Sick children from 12 years old or older were sent back by themselves to their home harbor. Children under 12 years old that were not allowed to stay in the US were forced to go back with one parent. Many tears were dropped when the parents should decide which parent that should stay and which parent that should go back with the sick child.

So much for the media chorus that Trump is the only president to separate immigrant children from their parents.

Those who passed their medical evaluations were not yet home free. Another inspector awaited them who made a determination whether, “That the person could take care of himself and fulfill the demands to be able to stay in the US.”

Another concept that most countries use in evaluating potential immigrants -- self-sufficiency rather than a burden on taxpayers. As one country states on their website, “We all expect each other to contribute to and share in Australia's wealth.”

This is particularly relevant with the recent report that that 63 percent of non-citizens in the U.S. are on welfare, 4.6 million households. Ellis Island scrutiny aimed to prevent this.

In addition, inspectors had to weed out the bad apples, “They should also determine if the person was a danger to the society.” Each inspector had only a few minutes to make their assessment. “If there were any hesitations the immigrant had to stay at Ellis Island for further investigation.”

Another novel concept -- not admitting known criminals or troublemakers. How many other countries have similar restrictions? From the New Zealand immigration website, “To show you are of good character, you may need to provide us with police certificates.”

After passing the multipoint inspection, they were given a “landing card”. Then they were free to enter America. “After approval it was time to leave the island and continue to the final destination.”

What a simple and logical approach. Despite the technological advances over the past century, sometimes the tried and true ways of the past are still best.

Unfortunately, politicians of both parties have no interest in a strong national border or scrutinizing who enters and stays in our country. The open borders elites don’t have to live with the consequences of their lax immigration enforcement. Illegal immigrants don’t live in their neighborhoods or attend their children’s fancy private schools. It’s everyone else who lives with the crime and disease.

Ellis Island was from a simpler time but effectively handled immigrants arriving in America. Some say the future proves the past. Why not bring back a successful past process, proven to work, leading to a safer future for America? Time to resurrect some Ellis Island common sense.

Brian C Joondeph, MD, MPS, a Denver based physician and writer. Follow him on Facebook,  LinkedIn and Twitter.