The coronavirus pandemic gave us the slogan “We’re all in this together.” It sounds warm and fuzzy, but it should have come with a disclaimer: “We” does not necessarily include “you.”
Following in President Donald Trump’s footstep to blame immigrants, Gov. Ron DeSantis has found a new scapegoat for Florida’s rising COVID-19 infection numbers: essential immigrant workers. Look for this good old anti-immigrant narrative to get more play as other politicians join in, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services conducts research on the spread of the disease in immigrant communities. Meanwhile, Asian Americans are worried about being bullied and attacked because of the president’s “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” rhetoric. But why stop there? We have other immigrant populations to target. “Us” vs. “them” – the dirty threat … the infestation … where have we heard that before?
As COVID-19 cases in Florida are skyrocketing, the state is set to become the new epicenter for the disease. Instead of taking timely and necessary steps to prevent the spread of the disease, the governor hid behind the Trump administration, denied science, dragged his feet on decisive action that could save lives. Now that the predictable consequences of his inaction are becoming embarrassing, he’s scapegoating Hispanic farm and construction workers for increased COVID-19 infections. This is wrong, and he knows it.
Months ago, 50 farmworkers organizations pleaded with DeSantis for assistance in alleviating some of the cramped living conditions that make it difficult for farm and construction workers to follow social distancing guidelines. He ignored their pleas and now he claims that their lifestyles are to blame for increased infection rates. And they shouldn’t really count … they’re not part of “us.”
The argument that immigrants are “dirty,” that they lack personal hygiene and carry or aggravate disease is an oldie but goodie among nativist politicians to divide the population and deflect blame from their own incompetence, not only in Florida. Immigrant workers in meat-processing plants up North, who were forced to continue working in close proximity, were accused of poor hygiene habits when many of them predictably tested positive. Anything to limit employer liability for cramping people together in their minimum wage workplace.
Similarly, Florida discusses eliminating liability for businesses that expose workers and customers to predictable risks. The president has rally-attendees sign liability waivers. So we know how dangerous this virus is – yet we treat essential workers who are literally putting food on our tables and building our homes like acceptable collateral damage. And then we have the audacity to blame them for increased infection numbers that make us look bad.
So let’s stop the rhetoric. Let’s stop “othering” hard working human beings to score political points and deflect from the fact that our own actions to protect Floridians were too little and too late. Floridians need leadership that represents all people, listens to infectious disease experts and implements sensible measures that help Floridians survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
Attorney Norma Henning is government affairs coordinator for Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Florida.