The New York Times reports that before the coronavirus outbreak began, senior Trump advisor Stephen Miller made several attempts to “use” public-health concerns — like a 2019 mumps outbreak in a migrant detention center — to justify sweeping restrictions on immigration. Miller, the authors claim, “has repeatedly tried to use an obscure law designed to protect the nation from diseases overseas as a way to tighten the borders.”
The Times reporters make a few inferences in the piece. First, they assume that was Miller being disingenuous when he cited public-health concerns: The reporters write that Miller “tried to use” a law “designed to protect the nation from diseases” to effectively “tighten the borders,” rather than construing his desired restrictions as an effort to “protect the nation from diseases.” Perhaps that assumption is not totally unfounded — Miller is, after all, a devoted restrictionist — but such assumptions hardly seem appropriate for two news reporters to make.
The second inference the reporters make is that Miller’s restrictionist efforts are effectively racist, or at least echo racist tropes:
The idea that immigrants carry infections into the country echoes a racist notion with a long history in the United States that associates minorities with disease.
This raises the question of what it means, in the context of immigration policy, to “associate” a minority population “with disease.” No one, as yet, advocates blindly associating a race of people with a disease, but viruses can be more or less prevalent by region, and that prevalence can be relevant when selecting which immigrants a nation ought to prefer. Do the Times reporters mean to say that it is “racist” to restrict immigration from a country where a contagious virus was spawned? Does the “long history in the United States” of racism require, as a sort of national indulgence, that we abstain from acknowledging the origin of a particular disease in our immigration policy? Was the United States government “racist” for cutting off travel from China after the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan?
And why, exactly, are two reporters from the New York Times attempting to answer those question in the subtext of a news story about Stephen Miller?
Recall the question that a Times staffer asked executive editor Dean Baquet at a town-hall meeting:
I’m wondering to what extent you think that the fact of racism and white supremacy being sort of the foundation of this country should play into our reporting. Just because it feels to me like it should be a starting point, you know? Like these conversations about what is racist, what isn’t racist. I just feel like racism is in everything. It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting. And so, to me, it’s less about the individual instances of racism, and sort of how we’re thinking about racism and white supremacy as the foundation of all of the systems in the country.