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President Trump Raises the Spectre of the Yellow Peril to Divide Americans and Shortchange Working People in $1 Trillion Stimulus Package

Criminalizing immigrant workers and dividing working people will NOT bring about public health security. But ensuring equal rights to universal healthcare and economic relief will. 

Trump criminalizes and blames immigrants for this crisis, the government seeks to get away with excluding undocumented immigrants from any sort of governmental relief, while allowing employers to continue to super-exploit them. (Photo: Josephine Lee)

Trump criminalizes and blames immigrants for this crisis, the government seeks to get away with excluding undocumented immigrants from any sort of governmental relief, while allowing employers to continue to super-exploit them. (Photo: Josephine Lee)

Months before the first case of COVID-19 was identified in the U.S., neighbors and friends stopped letting their kids play with my son, eyeing me with sideway looks when I said hello to their children on the street. 

Although I have not been attacked or cursed at, as some other Asian Americans have been, the silent social exclusion began long before Trump started calling for social distancing, a reminder that I am still seen as a foreigner, even though I was born and raised in this country. 

Framing the virus as a foreign threat Trump not only seeks to deflect blame for his inaction, but it allows him to further his efforts to criminalize immigrant workers in this country. 

Trump has long framed the spread of the coronavirus as a foreign threat to spare him of his responsibility and failure to take action to protect Americans from this crisis. Trump dismantled the National Security Council’s global health security office, slashed CDC’s budget, criticized media outlets who covered the spread of COVID-19  for “panicking markets”, while reassuring Americans that the virus would just “disappear.” It is no wonder that we are woefully short of test kits, and people are being turned away from hospitals. 

By framing the virus as a foreign threat Trump not only seeks to deflect blame for his inaction, but it allows him to further his efforts to criminalize immigrant workers in this country. 

On February 28, at a South Carolina rally Trump used the crisis to push his divisive immigration policies saying, “Border security is also health security” and criticized, albeit inaccurately, “the Democrat policy of open borders” for bringing in the virus into the country. 

On March 11, before Trump imposed a travel ban, the president shared a tweet by the conservative youth activist Charlie Kirk, who branded the disease the "China virus,” writing, “Now, more than ever, we need the wall. With China Virus spreading across the globe, the US stands a chance if we can control of our borders. President Trump is making it happen.” 

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In the U.S. during the 1880s, as the nation was recovering from the Civil War, propaganda of the “Yellow Peril” stoked divisions among Chinese and Irish workers in the American West. Fears of Chinese immigrants taking jobs away from Irish immigrants turned into outright attacks of the Chinese, resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Similarly in the South, former slaveholders spread propaganda that newly freed black workers would take away jobs from white workers, sowing divisions among workers, and building support among poor whites for the passage of Jim Crow laws and the re-enslavement of African-Americans. Meanwhile, the robber barons of the railroad, banking, and manufacturing industries, benefited from this disunity, impoverishing workers while enriching themselves.

This past Wednesday during a news conference Trump, again called the COVID-19 virus the “Chinese virus,” and defended White House officials’ use of the phrase “kung flu,” while he introduced the $1 trillion economic stimulus package. How much of our taxpayers’ money will working people actually receive? While Congress chips away at the paid sick leave, not only exempting employers with over 500 employees, but now allowing employers with less than 50 workers to be exempted, Trump extends billions in bailouts to the airline and cruise industry. Haven’t we learned from corporate bailouts of 2008, that wealth does not trickle down? And while Americans still are waiting for test kits and 27.5 million Americans without insurance will not be able to afford treatment, Trump seeks to help the private healthcare industry profit from America gaining exclusive rights to the COVID-19 vaccine. 

So while Trump criminalizes and blames immigrants for this crisis, the government seeks to get away with excluding undocumented immigrants from any sort of governmental relief, while allowing employers to continue to super-exploit them. It seeks to get away with hoodwinking the working Americans to blame “the yellow peril” and other immigrants so that we do not hold the government accountable for using this crisis to further deepen the wealth gap, enriching the robber barons of our time. 

We need to come together, as working people, to make sure that any government response to the coronavirus prioritizes the needs of working people, and is not used by private corporations to enrich themselves off this crisis. ALL working people should have equal rights to free testing and treatment, housing relief, direct economic assistance, and paid sick leave. All states should take California’s lead and ensure that all workers qualify for unemployment benefits, regardless of their immigration status. 

Criminalizing immigrant workers and dividing working people will NOT bring about public health security. But ensuring equal rights to universal healthcare and economic relief will. 

Josephine Lee

Josephine Lee is an organizer with El Pueblo Primero workers organization in Houston, TX and the Break the Chains Alliance, which calls for equal rights for all workers.

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