Leprosy: Legal Exclusion

May 15, 2018


United States immigration policies have complex and nuanced justifications; determining who qualifies to be permitted in any given country is no easy task. Of grounds for inadmissibility for individuals with leprosy, however, the reason is surprisingly simple: theology. In the bible, leprosy was “considered a curse of God, often associated with sin” and its codification within domestic immigration policy bloodies any ethical discussion of what legal immigration to the United States could possibly mean (Gillens 2007).

Even as global leprosy rates have dropped, and treatment has become more common and available, the deliberate choice to exclude lepers from United States immigration policy is representative of a larger culture of political and social exclusion that poisons any benign attempts at inclusion for abject populations. Leprosy is not easily contagious, it is not terminal, and its impacts are almost entirely physical (Suzuki 2012). Despite this, the global history of leprosy relies on the unjust and unfair exclusion (and expulsion) of lepers from public life – and even when they were included, their participation was always conditioned on a safe distance from the ‘uninfected’ population (Karah 2015).

This matters now more than ever: 69% of Latin American countries register a total of 27,000 new cases of leprosy every year; these people are automatically denied immigration status into the United States solely for who they are (TeleSur 2018). This article will defend an exemption for individuals with leprosy to immigrate to legally to the United States; even though lepers do not make up a large portion of the global population in a literal sense, this article will defend that allowing lepers demonstrates a substantial change in the way the United States considers immigration policy (and abject populations) writ large. Even if changing these policies do not increase the flow of immigration, the signal such an exemption sends represents a crucial interruption of dangerous, theological policy.

Latin America

The social impact of leprosy throughout history has had profound implications in the development of public life, particularly in Latin America. Even as early as the 1880s, “sufferers of leprosy [in Colombia], mainly mestizo peasants and artisans, were treated as 'inferior' races and they were persecuted and excluded in the name of protecting society from contagion” (Obregón 2003). Despite the more recent disestablishment of separate colonies for lepers and their families, bias offenses persisted.

Stigmatization associated with leprosy, especially in Latin America condemns thousands of people every year to a jobless, loveless, and undervalued life (Obregón 1996). Without a meaningful shift in how individuals think about leprosy, reformation to medical practices is hardly effective (Moran 2007). It is here that the importance of changing United States immigration policy becomes significant: so long as lepers are considered unworthy of entrance from foreign, or ‘polluted’ countries, those countries will continue to adopt domestic policies that shun lepers within their own borders (Zimmerman 2008). Even as movements against purity happen across academia, when the United States president declares that “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” what could be a more powerful symbol than a reform that legally sanctions the immigrant movement of the most misunderstood community that history has ever encountered (Shotwell 2016) (Trump 2015)?


No price is too high: the “ostracism from…families, communities, and even health professionals… [makes] leprosy…the death before death’” (Bennett 2008). The psychological violence waged against lepers every day is incalculable; given that leprosy is neither an existential threat nor is this reform large enough to disrupt the passage of a congressional policy agenda, the importance of this action stems from its symbolic and ethical value (Navon 1996). Of course, this modest reform might cause a negative occurance in the future (even if no one is entirely sure what) – but that is always the excuse given for inaction in face of injustice. Abstract risks are something we must live with because it is unacceptable that we remain complicit with the legally sanctioned exclusion of lepers.

One might go further – for the International Leprosy Association, seeing leprosy as a metaphor for political violence would mean the legal admission of lepers into the United States could be a possible starting point for evaluating other forms of exclusion. Given that the “body of the leper…becomes the living signifier of difference…the Other with whom all contact must be avoided,” maintaining an immigrant policy of leper exclusion from the public sphere represents “a genuine moment of Imperial anxiety during which the integration of the identity of the group was subjected to stress…a model that best reflects the common presuppositions about the Other at any given moment in history…leprosy, was projected onto others so that the colonial world was ‘seen as both corrupt and corrupting, polluted and polluting’” (Caron 2001) (ILA 2018).

Alternatively, understanding leprosy as a heuristic for the operationalization of other forms of oppression makes the act of accepting their presence, their pollution, into the United States all the more imperative. For too long, the public has rendered leprosy out of sight and out of mind – a contagion whose genuine fraternity would be unacceptable; as such, enabling the presence of the diseased flesh of the Other offers a potential for genuine empathetic connections with those humanity considers deviant (Kristeva 1982).


The exclusion of lepers from United States immigration policy represents a convergence of racial, gendered, and theological anxieties. Although there is no policy that can rectify the years of wrong done unto lepers and the social stigma that damages lives forever, the rhetorical symbol of removing leprosy from the list of Communicable Diseases of Public Health Significance represents an important shift in how citizens understand lepers at an individual level (UCIS 2018).

The continued absent of leprosy in discussions of social issues concerning immigration policy will ensure psychological violence persists unquestioned. It is an imperative that political theorists understand the historical implications surrounding the exclusion of lepers – the failure to adequately theorize the way the symbol of the leper interacts with other immigration policies and political violence writ large, sets the framework for continued exclusion and political apathy that makes true deliberative democracy impossible.



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About Author(s)

Leonard Brahin
Leonard Brahin is a Politics-Philosophy and Communications Major. His primary research interests concern the rhetorical construction of political advocacy, contemporary neoliberalism, and the effects of media representations on policy outcomes.