Illegal Immigration and Public Health: Panic in the Streets (1950)

Panic in the Streets

In Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950), an illegal immigrant, Kochakan, is patient zero in an outbreak of pneumonic plague in New Orleans. As the police search for Vince Poldi—the second person to contract the deadly disease—Dr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) takes measures to try and contain the outbreak. Kochakan exemplifies one of the dangers of illegal immigration: Illegal immigrants often do not have the same access to health care as American citizens. If they are sick, and do not receive treatment, this can result in diseases spreading more quickly throughout the general population.

In order to minimize the risk to public health in New Orleans, Reed is faced with a dilemma. The pneumonic plague has a “death incidence [that] is practically 100%.” If knowledge of the outbreak is kept from the public, more people in the city could die. If the outbreak is reported in the newspapers, Poldi, a criminal, might flee New Orleans, and the plague could spread nationwide. To ensure Poldi stays in New Orleans, Reed tries to stop Neff, the newspaper reporter, from running a story. Neff says the public has “a right to know what is going on”, but Reed disagrees. Finding Poldi is also in the public interest, and ironically, perhaps more important than making knowledge of the plague known. Reed chooses the “least worst” of the two alternatives: The health and safety of the entire country is more important than a single city.

The problem of illegal immigration and disease is further compounded if the individual is involved in crime. In the opening scene, Kochakan is playing poker at a table with Poldi and several men who are all criminals. Although Kochakan is sick, he does not go to a hospital for treatment. This is partly due to a lack of money, but the chief reason is because he fears being deported. After Kochakan is murdered, Reed and the police try to find Poldi, the second man infected with the plague. Poldi is a difficult man to find, and by the time they do locate him, he is dead. When a criminal infected with a disease is wanted by the police, they will naturally try to avoid being caught and quarantined. Thus, a criminal—whether illegal alien or American citizen—becomes a health risk to others if they are sick and do not go to a hospital. The longer they move freely among the general population, the more likely the sickness will spread.

The idea of illegal immigrants infected with a disease is not limited to the historical past. In 2014, when tens of thousands of illegal immigrant children entered the U.S. from Mexico, communicable diseases were common at the New Mexico facility built to house them.”1 At detention centers in Texas, there were reported cases of scabies, chicken pox and MRSA staph infections.2 In these cases, the children crossing the border were detained and treated. However, if illegal immigrants enter the country when sick and do not receive treatment, they can pose a risk to public health.

Access to health care for illegal immigrants is still a challenge today. Under the Affordable Care Act, “11.7 million undocumented people are either explicitly barred from accessing federal benefits or face significant restrictions on Medicaid and other programs for the poor.”3 Health care options “are limited, and vary widely from state to state.”4 Even when health care is available, illegal immigrants may not go to a hospital when they are sick because of “the fear of deportation.”5 If such individuals are infected with a deadly disease, this could have devastating consequences in the general population.

Panic in the Streets illustrates how the key principle to controlling a deadly outbreak is containment. Effective quarantine means controlling not only the movements of citizens who are sick, but also stopping illegal immigrants at the border. Unfortunately, the United States does not have a secure border fence with Mexico, and consequently, no effective means to stop illegal immigration. With an open border and millions of citizens who do not have health insurance, the United States is highly vulnerable in the event of an outbreak of a deadly disease.

Notes

  1. Stephen Dinan, “Disease plagues illegal immigrants,” Washington Times, October 6, 2014, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/oct/6/diseases-still-problem-illegal-immigrant-families/.
  2. Navideh Forghani, “Undocumented Immigrants bringing diseases across border,” ABC 15 Arizona, June 9, 2014, http://www.abc15.com/news/national/immigrants-bringing-diseases-across-border.
  3. Keegan Hamilston, “Obamacare Bars Illegal Immigrants—and Sticks Hospitals With the Bill,” The Atlantic, December 18, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/12/obamacare-bars-illegal-immigrants-and-sticks-hospitals-with-the-bill/282444/.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
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One thought on “Illegal Immigration and Public Health: Panic in the Streets (1950)

  1. Illegal immigration is a vexed issue and there is also the reality that American agriculture is heavily dependent on the cheap labor of illegals, who are largely exploited on low pay, bad housing, and no access to services. It can be argued that the US has an obligation to provide health and other services to these workers and their families, whose cut-price labor subdidises agribusiness profits. Anthony Mann’s film noir Border Incident (1949) examines the fate of illegals from their perspective, and has been the focus of recent academic research into US agribusinesses and associations in film noir. This post on my blog discusses the work of Jonathan Auerbach a professor of English at the University of Maryland, and his book ‘Dark Borders: The Un-Americaness of Film Noir’: http://filmsnoir.net/film_noir/jonathan-auerbach-noir-citizenship-and-anthony-mann’s-border-incident.html.

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