One of the most-unfortunate aspects of the political sparring over the 57,000 children from Central America emigrating to this country is the nasty rhetoric coming from Nativists — including those in movement conservative circles — insinuating that the kids should be kept out because they are supposedly infected with diseases. From Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin claiming that the emigres would bring common childhood diseases such as lice, measles and chickenpox to her supposedly disease-fee state, to congressional Republicans going on talk radio claiming that the presence of border kids may lead to communities suffering illnesses, they are engaging in the kind of careless rhetoric that essentially dehumanizes the most-vulnerable when they should be treating them like their own children.
But House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee Chairman Todd Rokita went a step further — and played upon otherwise-reasonable fears about the possibility of an Ebola epidemic spreading from West Africa to this country — by suggesting that border kids may be infected with the deadly virus. For such deliberately careless rhetoric, Rokita shouldn’t even hold his subcommittee chairmanship, much less serve in the federal lower house. And conservative reformers, who should broach no rhetoric that perpetuates cultures of death that harm all children, should demand his resignation.
During an appearance yesterday on Indianapolis talk show host Greg Garrison’s radio show, the Hoosier State Republican argued that “we need to know the condition of these kids” because they may be carrying Ebola. Rokita then went further by arguing against moves by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement to place border kids with parents, relatives, and other sponsors because he doubts that the agency is examining and vaccinating them.
Certainly border kids who are suffering illnesses should be quarantined and treated. But Ebola is a virus that primarily plagues sub-Saharan Africa. There has never been an outbreak of Ebola in any Central American country, according to the World Health Organization, and the most-likely people to bring the virus to this country are Americans who have worked in places affected by the disease such as Liberia. So Rokita’s speculation, which he could have easily figured out was wrong just by getting one of his congressional aides to consult the WHO’s Web site, is both silly and irresponsible.
[By the way: Rokita hasn’t called for a travel ban on flights to and from West African nations or demanded that American aid workers traveling back from those countries be put into quarantine. This pretty much tells you that he isn’t all that concerned about an Ebola outbreak.]
Rokita’s claim that he doubts border kids are being screened and vaccinated is also false. This is already happening. Every border child brought to a detention center is screened for tuberculosis and other illnesses, then vaccinated. Just as importantly, most of these kids already come to the United States already vaccinated from childhood diseases; 93 percent of kids who come from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have been vaccinated, according to WHO, another data point Rokita could have gotten a staffer to dig up. Even for those few kids who may be sick with measles or tuberculosis, they are unlikely to foster an outbreak. Some 9,945 tuberculosis cases are diagnosed every year for an average of 3.2 people per 100,000, according to CDC; 200 cases of measles are diagnosed every year. While a record 288 cases of measles have been diagnosed during the first five months of this year, most of that has resulted from Americans who haven’t received vaccinations traveling to nations in Europe, Asia, and Africa, where the childhood disease is still common. In fact, the biggest threat to the health of American children and adults are those parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids because of false fears spread that vaccines cause autism. Rokita can thank the daughter of former Indiana Congressman Dan Burton, who, along with celebrity Jenny McCarthy, have been the most-prominent proponents of the bad vaccines myth.
Certainly Rokita isn’t the only congressional Republican insinuating that border kids may be infected with Ebola. Last month, his colleague, Phil Gingrey, fired off a letter to the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention demanding that the agency alert the public of the possibility of border kids having Ebola and other diseases. But unlike Gingrey, Rokita actually chairs a House subcommittee that oversees federal policymaking that affects children attending the nation’s elementary and secondary schools. Given his role, along with the low likelihood of border kids having Ebola, Rokita should have behaved far more responsibly than he did. But he chose to engage in the kind of Ravitchian demagoguery that no political leader, much less one of the key players in education policymaking, should do.
Rokita’s attempt to link border kids to diseases is also nothing new. Throughout history, Nativists have raised concerns of infections, along with eugenicist claims of mental inferiority, as reasons for opposing emigres entering the nation’s borders. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Irish , Jewish, and Italian immigrants were supposedly carriers of cholera, polio and tuberculosis, diseases common in American society before their entry because of poor sanitation and the lack of modern medicine. What Rokita, along with his colleagues opposed to the presence of border children are doing is borrowing the language of earlier demagogues to dehumanize defenseless children. In the process, not only is Rokita behaving inhumanely, he is even violating the compassion toward children born and unborn that is a tenet of movement conservatism.
Put simply, Rokita should lose his chairmanship. He should also lose his seat in the House. Your editor doesn’t expect any of that to happen. After all, for House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, Rokita’s inexperience on education policymaking (as compared to that of fellow Hoosier Luke Messer, who did admirable work advancing reform during his tenure as a state legislator) makes him quite useful in pushing his goal of eviscerating the No Child Left Behind Act. Kline has yet to show that he will make a responsible decision that would hurt his cause. As for losing his seat? Thanks to gerrymandering, along with the penchant of Hoosiers to keep less-than-stellar politicians in the halls of Congress (a group that included Burton, who held office for 30 years in spite of missing numerous votes in order to attend golf outings, and the notorious Julia Carson), Rokita will likely keep his job.
The big question is what will conservative reformers — including American Enterprise Institute honcho Rick Hess (whose think tank gave Rokita a platform to explain House Republican efforts on federal education policy this past May), and Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli — will do? Conservative reformers can no more tolerate Rokita’s rhetoric about border kids than traditionalists should when it comes to the demagoguery of once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch. At the very least, conservative reformers should call out Rokita for his nastiness and should go further than that. Any silence on their part and they can no longer complain about traditionalists engaging in similar nastiness.
Rokita has shown through his words that he is incapable of treating the least of our children with basic human decency. He should not be heading any congressional committee involving any issue that deals with kids or their education.