The Supreme Court Decision to Uphold the Travel Ban Is Unhealthy and Unjust

On Saturday my nephew is getting married. My mother won’t be there. Oh, how she adored this first grandson. Mothering hadn’t come easily to her, but spoiling this first grandchild was pure delight.

Over the years, I hardly allow myself to think of all she has missed, all that was taken from her and from us. She died on 9/11, in the attack on the World Trade Center. She was murdered because she was an American. The men who drove the planes into the towers were not interested in details, whether she supported this country’s policies or hated Muslims. It was enough that she was an American.

Does this sound familiar? On June 26, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed President Donald Trump’s travel ban. The ruling comes despite the arguments that the President’s rhetoric throughout his campaign is evidence of religious discrimination. There is so much evidence to choose from but let’s just take a look at one instance where Trump expressed his views on Muslims:

“This all happened because, frankly, there’s no assimilation. They are not assimilating . . . They want to go by Sharia law. They want Sharia law. They don’t want the laws that we have. They want Sharia law.”

I guess the president hasn’t spoken to my friends, women who fled deeply discriminatory Sharia laws.

This rhetoric has continued throughout his Presidency. We have grown used to this president’s nimble use of hatred and discrimination.

Call me naïve, but I expected more of our highest court. To me, our First Amendment’s prohibition of discrimination based on religion is sacred. Whether considering the extermination of Jews during WWll or the centuries-old discrimination against Catholics in Ireland, our Constitution shines.

When I listen or read the words of our president, or of our highest court, I feel hopeless. The truth is this ban enacts irrational religious hatred. It is not based on fact or reason. Note that Saudi Arabia is not on the list of countries whose citizens are banned. Yet the Saudis were largely responsible for 9/11 and as Justice Sotomayor stated in her dissent, the president “characterized the policy proposal as a suspension of immigration from countries ‘where there’s a proven history of terrorism.’”

This policy bans citizens from entire countries based on identity. My mother was killed for being American. Blind categorization is blind categorization.

As a public health professional and lawyer, I have vast concerns about the health impacts of the SCOTUS decision as it will limit access to clinical care and raise the risk for illnesses linked to discriminatory attitudes.

The restriction on travel from several majority-Muslim countries to the United States will mean fewer clinicians in areas that need them most. CDC data indicate physicians born outside the U.S. are more likely to serve Medicaid and Medicaid patients compared to U.S.-born physicians, and are more likely to practice in areas with primary care shortages. Many of these doctors are here on visas that direct them to practice in low-income, minority, and rural communities where health outcomes lag. Physicians from Iran and Syria alone, both of which are included in the travel ban, provide more than 14 million patient visits each year, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

There are also health impacts related to modeling xenophobic attitudes. Those who are discriminated against are at greater risk of distress, low self-esteem and mental illness. Xenophobia can also lead to reduced access to jobs, medical care and other social determinants of health.

Research has found that discrimination, including xenophobia, can lead to reduced access to resources and increased risk for psychological stress and fear, all of which impact a person’s health. A 2015 systematic review of research studies found that experiences of discrimination are particularly associated with mental health outcomes including depression, psychological stress, and anxiety, as well physical health outcomes, including high blood pressure, obesity, and giving birth to low-birth-weight babies.

Not to mention, the damage we do to children by modelling discrimination from the nation’s highest court.

Unlike the president, or members of the Supreme Court, I did lose a mother to fundamentalist violence. For me, hatred and blind discrimination are pathways to despair not hope.

This policy and the Supreme Court decision violate the very principles that make this country great.

Harriet and Robert H. Heilbrunn Professor and Chair, Population and Family Health at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health

Harriet and Robert H. Heilbrunn Professor and Chair, Population and Family Health at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health