Spend enough time in Hebrew school and you may come to fear showers. This euphemism for gas chambers might haunt you. Your ears might prick up at the mention of cleanliness, as you ask what kind of “hygiene” is being promised and to whom? In detention centers in South Texas, Border Patrol agents separated children from their parents on the premise that the children were being given a bath. Instead they were taken to different detention centers, the location unknown to their parents.

Trump, Jeff Sessions, and Stephen Miller have tapped into an ideology that treats immigrants as a contagion of the national body. They describe foreign countries as dirty, diseased places whose populations are vectors of social and economic illness. Migrants from these countries arriving in the United States are subsequently treated as toxins, liable to infect and degrade the nation’s health. This is an ideology that permits the administration to confine children to cages. Its roots lie deep in U.S. history.

Hygiene, contagion, and cleanliness have shaped immigration policy, assimilationist projects, and understanding of national belonging in the United States and Western Europe since the late nineteenth century. Global immigration, industrialization, and urbanization transformed cities. Wealthy white urbanites found themselves in closer proximity to the working class, which was made up of largely European, Latin American, and Asian immigrants and African Americans (depending on region). Confronted with changing labor organization, crowded neighborhoods, new religions, languages, and political ideologies, social reformers and nativist politicians embarked on a pseudo-scientific expedition to improve national stock by cleaning up the population.

Reformers who wanted to assimilate immigrants and nativists who wanted to exclude them both used a language of hygiene. They conflated cleanliness with righteousness and disorder with criminality. The trope of hygiene washed a veneer of respectability on immigration policy, welfare programs, and sterilization laws designed to preserve the health of the national body through the exclusion, eradication, and reformation of individuals and practices deemed unhealthy and undesirable.

From the costal immigration stations of Ellis Island and Angel Island and down to Laredo, Texas, immigrant’s entrance into the U.S. depended on their individual health. In 1916, Mexican immigrants entering the United States were tattooed with the word “admitted,” after being bathed and examined by U.S. immigration and public health services as they crossed the border. When Mexican migrants protested, U.S. medical inspectors explained that this was necessary to defend Texas from the parasites and germs carried by poor Mexican laborers.[1] Immigration discourse not only characterized working-class migrants as incubators of disease, it cast foreigners as a contagion in it of themselves.

In New York City’s bustling tenements, a growing class of professionally trained, female social workers used hygiene as an assimilationist tactic. Social workers and “friendly visitors” inspected the cleanliness of working-class mother’s apartments and instruct them on hygienic food preparation. They offered both practical information, like boiling bottles for cleanliness, and instructions that demeaned immigrant cultures as unhealthy. Immigrant mothers were advised not to serve their children spicy food. It would give them a fiery temperament, inconsonant with middle-class, Anglo-American culture.

The lines between public health promotion and eugenics movements are discomfitingly blurry. In few places is this more true than efforts toward sexual hygiene. Sexual hygiene was a paradoxical project, which included venereal disease treatment, birth control provision, pronatalism (encouraging women to have children), and forced sterilization. It both allowed women to control their reproduction and reduce infant mortality and served as a tool to control and limit the lives of women — particularly women of color, poor women or those deemed “unfit” for motherhood. [2] By pathologizing the intimate lives and reproduction of women classed as undesirable mothers, sexual hygiene contributed to the eugenicist project of shaping future populations through medical discourse.

Panics over “race suicide” swept the United States, France, and Germany, and eugenicists promoted “better breeding,” as an antidote. Despite its common association with Nazi Germany, eugenics was a popular ideology in the United States in the interwar period with iterations across the political spectrum.[3] Commentators howled that the growth of large immigrant and non-white families, declining birth rates for middle- and upper-class white women, and women’s increased labor outside the home would lead to the collapse of society. Interracial relationships would dirty and contaminate the national populace. Fears of demographic change promoted xenophobia and nativism.

The conflation of national health, individual cleanliness, and racial hygiene legitimized immigration legislation that excluded large segments of the foreign population. The 1917 Immigration Act barred immigration from Asia and the Pacific as well as “idiots,” “epileptics,” and the “mentally or physically defective,” whom it classed as “undesirables.” A resurgent Klu Klux Klan influence the passage of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration act, which severely restricted immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. Supporters of Trump’s inaugural racist legislation, the Muslim Travel Ban, recycled the language of contagion and infection heard in debates over these laws. They have practiced and honed their message to defend what cannot be hidden behind chain link fences and industrial grade tents.

Pathologizing individuals or entire communities as carriers of disease or contagions themselves is part of the process of dehumanization. It is a mindset that encourages family separation and the creation of internment camps. The executive order to replace family separation with family detention does not change this, it is the same prescription in new packaging. The Trump administration and ICE are still treating children, parents, grandparents, and siblings as a foreign illness that needs to be contained. The true sickness is not foreign, its hereditary.

Sarah Sklaw is a PhD candidate in the History department at New York University. She studies the intersection of gender, international development, migration, and U.S. empire during the Cold War.


[1] Alexandra Minna Stern. Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America . Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005, 58.

[2] Johanna Schoen. Choice and Coercion: Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare.Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

[3] Daylanne English. Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance.Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004

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