The night before, our next door neighbor came over. She had been glued to the TV, watching the reaction to Dr. King’s violent death. Fear was in her eyes. She assured us that she had a gun, and we need not be afraid. She could handle “outsiders” who dared to violate the borders of our neighborhood.
Civil unrest or not, I knew that the medical students would be there waiting for me, not only because some of them grew up in that very neighborhood, but because Friday night meant that there would be a Free Clinic in the Lower Ninth Ward, no matter what. I was their Faculty Advisor in the Community Medicine program. But who could have predicted a night like this? This past Christmas Eve, I reflected on those events in this Blog post. I will spare the reader a recounting of what happened in the Lower Ninth Ward that night, or during the eventful week afterward, but it is as near as a click for anyone interested.
For two years before I moved to New Orleans, the porous US-Mexico border had been my workplace as a US Public Health Service officer. One of my concerns had been the illogic of universal mandatory smallpox vaccinations of arriving aliens. False rumors of smallpox epidemics in Mexico flourished, and the American public and their leaders said it was our job to keep the scourge from the south in check.
Fear trumped science and logic. No matter that our best intelligence never verified any recent smallpox cases in Mexico. In fact, the last US outbreak occurred in Texas, in 1949. That same year, smallpox disappeared from Mexico, although that nation was not “officially” declared free of the disease until 1951. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s all of the purported Mexican “smallpox” epidemics turned out to be chickenpox, measles, or impetigo.
Each year at the border, we unnecessarily vaccinated hundreds of thousands of arriving Mexican citizens, including persons who were at high risk of complications from the vaccine, such as pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems, and skin rashes such as eczema, any of which could cause disseminated and even fatal vaccinia infections. Our illogical and dangerous policy was driven by the public’s fear.
By chance, since my boss was attending a meeting in Hermosillo, Mexico, I happened to be acting medical officer in charge of the US-Mexico Border Quarantine office in El Paso, when the announcement was finally released. I had to deal with an anxious press corps. To the left is a June 9, 1967 clipping from the El Paso Times..
Fear again rules in the Rio Grande Valley. Many of you
birders have visited this marvelous place, where the populations and
delicate ecosystems of Mexico and Norteamérica merge, where cows, deer and rabbits from both sides of the river casually sip the waters of Rio Bravo.
An editorial in yesterday’s Dallas Morning News states (in part):
“Proponents of a border fence between Mexico and the United States want it taller, thicker, longer. They want it impregnable, and they want it now because, for them, this is the solution to our illegal immigration problem. Others, including landowners, border-area politicians and environmental groups, say the fence will be ineffectual, will disrupt wildlife habitats and could damage U.S.-Mexico relations…”
This past week, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that, under legal mandate and as authorized by waivers that bypass federal environmental reviews, he will push forward to complete 370 miles of fence.The editorial continues:
“…Mr. Chertoff concedes that the fence will be more of a hindrance to illegal immigrants than an impenetrable monolith… Anyone looking at a map of the fence, especially in Texas, can see that most of the border will remain open. And the land chosen for the federal right-of-way is provoking additional skepticism. The fence will divide the University of Texas campus in Brownsville, for example, but it bypasses border property owned by individuals with close White House ties. Dozens of court challenges are pending.”
Headline in today’s KVEO-TV (Brownsville, TX) Web site:
Border Fence is Potential Doom for Valley Nature Preserves
“The entire Sabal Palm Audubon Center and most of the Natures Conservancy’s Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve would end up in the no-man’s land between the fence and Mexico…
“…Now if Homeland Security Secretary, Michael Chertoff gets his wish and bypasses environmental laws, thousand of acres along the Rio Grande will be ceded to the Mexican side of the fence. Audubon Center Director, Jimmy Paz says, what the feds are trying to do is a sad shame.”
From today’s Austin (Texas) American-Statesman, this editorial opinion (in part):
Border fence stretching boundaries of federal arrogance
“Even for an administration infamous for doing things its own way, the announcement that the Department of Homeland Security will ignore at least 30 federal laws to build a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border is a breathtaking display of arrogance…
“…Make no mistake, we believe that the United States has both the right and the duty to protect its borders, but the question is how best to do that. A binational approach would be preferable, and Mexican officials view the fence as an insult. You can argue whether the attitude is justified from now until the end of time, but the argument won’t change the perception of a government whose cooperation is vital if we are to reach a meaningful solution to illegal immigration…”