How Disease Creates Bias in Immigration Law

Hello, my name is Michelle Furmansky and I’m majoring in Finance and Political Science with a minor in Economics. Growing up as the daughter of Jewish refugees from Kiev, Ukraine (former Soviet Union), I couldn’t help but view the American experience through the lens of immigration. Through my family’s journey, I Iearned about the xenophobia and the stigma that comes with immigration, especially when one comes from a culture that is backwards by American standards.

 When the coronavirus hit the United States, instances of hate crimes against Asian-Americans rose. Asian-Americans were avoided, called awful slurs, told to go back to their “home country”, and even experienced physical violence or harassment (Kelley, 2020). This xenophobia and racism, kindled by the uncertainty of the virus and its effects, reminded me of just how much fear has governed the American public’s interactions with immigrants and their descendants in the past, especially during epidemics and pandemics. 

In my research under the mentorship of Professor Bernard Hibbitts from the law school, I am exploring the connection between public health and immigration law from the beginning of the 20th century until the present day, as well as the passage of xenophobic political initiatives often justified by public health concerns. During outbreaks of disease, it is common for a country to impose restrictions such as travel bans to protect the nation’s safety. However, while some measures like these have succeeded at curtailing the spread of disease, other public health and immigration policies perpetuate prejudice more than they protect American citizens from harm. 

As part of my research, I will be investigating the actual immigration process and the various medical examinations and tests that immigrants have had to undergo over the decades, during moments when certain medical conditions were used to exclude “undesirable” immigrant groups. From there, I will be focusing on epidemics like the San Francisco Plague, the 1918 Influenza pandemic, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Ebola, and COVID-19 to research the immigration initiatives and policies passed in reaction to these times of disease. I will address past and present policies which target specific groups, perpetuate an “us vs them” mentality, or leave ample room for discrimination, as well as compare the efficacy of public health initiatives. I think it is vital that we learn from our past mistakes as a nation to avoid xenophobic policies when we resume immigration in a post-COVID world. 

As someone who is still trying to figure out their direction in life, my research through the CURF is helping me narrow down my interests by allowing me to pursue the topics that intrigue me in my own way. Recently, I have started seriously considering going to law school after graduation, but as an undergraduate, it’s difficult to comprehend what that experience would be like and whether I would find it enjoyable. The CURF allows me to study branches of law that interest me under the guidance of an amazing law professor as a sophomore, and through my research, I know that I will gain more clarity as to what I want to do with my life after graduation. 


Kelley, A. (2020, April 7). Attacks on Asian Americans skyrocket to 100 per day during

coronavirus pandemic. Retrieved from


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