An American Legacy

MPH candidate Karinna Carrillo reflects on the dark past of eugenics and, following graduation, vows to be a political candidate with social, economic, and environmental justice perspectives at the forefront of her campaign.

September 30, 2020

Recent reports from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers in Georgia tell a story of a callous, inhumane, and American tradition; a tradition of cruelty toward immigrants, women, and the working class. As a second-year student at the Columbia Mailman School, it was not a surprise to learn of ICE’s alleged latest acts of terror because we covered events just like these as early as our first semester in “Foundations of Public Health.” From sea to shining sea, America continues to practice genocide, hatred, and dehumanization. To avoid fault or responsibility, it is a history that is left out of textbooks; as such, it deserves attention.

While it was already understood that ICE utilized cruel tactics such as withholding medical care and basic needs that frequently leads to exacerbated health conditions, illnesses (i.e. COVID-19), or even death, a new account claims that ICE is also committing further human rights violations: nonconsensual and coerced partial and full hysterectomies of detained immigrants, eliminating one’s ability to bear children. America is using ill-practiced, and “philosophically-committed” physicians and the power they have over their patients captives to commit crimes against humanity. They are not, however, the first to occur in the United States.

Beginning as early as 1907 with sterilization laws that expanded to 33 states, Americans employed eugenics, the process of choosing which peoples were more beneficial for procreation, as a way to conceal genocide of poor, minority populations. This movement was widely supported and by 1927 the practice was upheld 8 to 1 in a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Forced sterilizations like those of Latinx women at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center continued for decades in the United States and serve as a horrific example of eugenics-motivated health interventions whereby political measures were imposed on communities to prevent births of a specific type of people. In doing so, the American government violated individuals’ human rights and committed an act of genocide.

Other instances of American genocide are less outright, but include the same elements of racism, classism, and dehumanization; they occur through poisoned and toxic air and water, inhumane immigration programs, and discriminatory practices in healthcare and research. Using policy and science to substantiate xenophobia and racism, genocide in this country is persistent, chronic, and slowly targeting communities. There are many similarities between the alleged hysterectomies in Georgia and the lead poisoning that occurred in Flint, Michigan.

The Flint water crisis purportedly was an accident, but it was driven by economic interests that primarily impacted low-income communities and communities of color, which caused direct and detrimental health consequences known to influence children’s cognitive ability and mothers’ reproductive function. Similar to sterilization, poisoning the people of Flint, MI was an intentional, systematic intervention undermining a community's ability to prosper and live, and ultimately, escape the oppressive forces keeping them in a discriminatory system.

Public health shows us how interconnected and interdependent we are. Harmful and economically motivated changes to a city’s water system will go on to impact healthcare costs, the education system, and a community’s willingness to engage in and trust their government. Still, interconnectedness is not enough. After one year in the MPH program at Columbia Mailman, I understand that for as long as we have ill-motivated politicians, inhumane policies that prioritize profits over people will remain.

For this reason, following graduation from Columbia Public Health, I will run for office. I will be a legislator grounded in science and public health and one who will always rely on my background in environmental health sciences.

I will serve as a leader constantly criticizing who we are as a country, in the hopes of a future where communities are no longer fearful of the intentions of their elected officials; a future where we are not persecuted for the color of our skin or zip code and our ethnicity does not determine our life expectancy. I am the legacy of centuries of advocates and organizers, politicians and poets, educators and students, workers, and farmers. I will always fight for a government that protects and serves; a government that respects and values; a government that unites.

Along with completing my second year here, I am a candidate in Dare to Run, a program geared toward preparing women to run for office. As a first-generation student, running for office and entering politics can seem impossible. There is no clear path, and it is easy to feel like it will never be possible. Dare to Run is giving me the space to learn who I will be as a candidate and how my ideas will best serve my future constituents. 

As a future leader of this country, I plan to bring a perspective based on social, economic, and environmental justice and advocate for people whose stories are left out of legislation.

Health must be at the core of every single policy decision we make. From our education and criminal justice systems to affordable transportation and food security, health drives our communities, and we need legislators who understand that.

I will prioritize occupational and housing rights and will fight hard for universal healthcare, as health should never be a hindrance to anyone in achieving their best life. 

Everyone has a story, and as a future Representative, I want my constituents to know they are heard and valued. I want them to feel confident that someone just like them is advocating for their wellbeing regardless of their background. We aren't here just to live; we are here to thrive, be well, and be happy, and it is time that under-represented communities get that chance. I am proud to be from a working-class, Latinx family, and I will fight for the rights we all deserve. 

Karinna Carrillo is a 2021 MPH candidate in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences. She received her BS in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention from the University of Southern California.