Two years ago, CNN heavyweight Lou Dobbs inexplicably began propagating the theory that illegal aliens were unleashing an epidemic of leprosy in this country. In an April 14, 2005, broadcast that was recently exhumed by 60 Minutes, the man who has become a champion of the middle class in the autumnal phase of an otherwise humdrum career announced that 7,000 cases of leprosy had been reported in the United States in the previous three years, as opposed to 900 cases in the previous 40 years.
When these shocking numbers were challenged by 60 Minutes' Lesley Stahl, no math whiz herself, and were also questioned by mystified experts in the public health field, Dobbs stuck to his guns, insisting that if he reported something as a fact, then it was a fact. This seemed to tie in with his theory that illegal aliens were systematically wrecking the American economy. Because of his refusal to back down from what seems on the face of it to be a preposterous allegation, Dobbs was recently the subject of a withering New York Times column which deftly but decisively portrayed him as a charlatan, a xenophobe, a blowhard, and a liar.
Yet, amazingly enough, anecdotal evidence seeping in from the trenches suggests that Dobbs may be on to something, after all. Industry after industry is now reporting that foreign lepers with or without work papers are putting able-bodied Americans out of work all across the nation.
"It doesn't really matter if you have leprosy when you're operating a leaf-blower," says a Rancho Caliente, Colo., environmentalist outraged by the "army" of alien leper gardeners who have invaded her community. "Lawn-care companies hire lepers because they know angry neighbors won't confront them about noise pollution, fearing that they will be pilloried as enemies of the epidermally challenged, while also catching leprosy. And the police won't go anywhere near leaf-blowing lepers."
Local authorities confirm this assertion.
"On a scale of one to 10, enforcing village noise ordinances ranks about 23 around here," says Rancho Caliente police chief Dirk Carmody. "You toss in the whole leper thing, and you're sending coals to Newcastle."
Leper aliens are also making an impact in the food services industry. Gaston Fenelon, a Dijon native who recently took over as head chef at New York's trendy Vendredi de Trop, says that leper chefs are in great demand in New York because they will work for far less money than nonlepers.
"The real payoff is when the entire staff walks out, and the restaurant can replace them with leper chefs, leper busboys, and even leper waiters, though not yet leper maître d's," says Fenelon, sporting a jet-black "You Wouldn't Understand; It's a Hansen's Disease Thing" T-shirt. "We work cheap, we don't mind putting in huge amounts of overtime because we have such constricted social lives, and we have a wonderful esprit de corps rarely found in the food preparation business. But mostly, we work cheap."
"Most waiters and waitresses have attitude problems because they're only waiting tables until their acting careers take off," explains Phil Kaplan, who opened Vendredi de Trop in 1998 after his bistro Sans Prétension closed two years before-because of labor unrest. "Leper waitstaff aren't actresses or ballerinas waiting for their ships to come in; they're lepers."
Experts agree that the number of illegal lepers seeping in across the border is less important than the skills the lepers bring with them.
"Half the people writing for Comedy Central are top-flight stand-ups from Pakistan and Venezuela who came down with leprosy," says Natalie Beaumont, media coordinator for the Fibonacci Institute, a Washington think tank that specializes in dubious statistics. "With the exception of P.J. O'Rourke and David Sedaris, I can think of almost no major satirist in this country today who is not an Eastern European leper. Remember: No one knows what a satirist looks like, so being a leper doesn't hurt their careers."
Adds Beaumont: "Most of the top interest-rate forecasters at hedge funds are foreign-born lepers. Ditto private equity firms. But these are all lepers that have a right to be here. What irks me is when Dobbs starts mixing apples and oranges: lumping lepers and illegal alien lepers together because he knows it plays well in the heartland. It's true that tens of thousands of unskilled, low-paid alien lepers entering this country illegally would traumatize our health care system. But white-collar lepers with their papers in order make a great contribution to America, and earn more than enough to cover all their bills for medicine and skin-care products and disguises."
Several commentators have suggested that Dobbs's obsession with disease-plagued illegal aliens may stem from his own fears that a charismatic leper newscaster might one day take his place at CNN.
"Dobbs is engaging in a kind of hale-fellow-well-met way, but he's still basically your chubby, middle-aged, blow-dried newsman," says Chick Gallagher, a media trainer specializing in finding work for news anchors with bad skin. "But CNN has an ancient audience, and as Americans get older and their vision gets weaker, I'm not sure that most viewers would even notice if a leper was manning The Situation Room. Anderson Cooper would probably put a few perky leper correspondents on his show just to remind the public that he's a champion of the sick, as well the poor, the black, the Hispanic, and the entire population of sub-Saharan Africa. So this could all come down to one thing: Lou Dobbs isn't so much afraid of illegal aliens with leprosy; he's afraid of illegal aliens with pizazz!
"And, if you've seen his show lately, you can understand why."
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.