U.S. Immigration Policies Impact the World’s Blood Supply — an Odd Story

By David North on July 18, 2022

Migration policy routinely deals with whole human beings, from hairdos to toes. The whole person is either accepted or rejected by the admitting nation.

This post deals with an odd development — how part of the American immigration policy is being used to regulate the international movement of part of a human body — its blood.

It turns out, unknown to most of us, that a very important part of our liquid blood supply has been secured from non-migrant Mexican nationals who cross the border to make some money by selling blood to blood banks. The industry says that fully 10 percent of the nation’s supply, traditionally, has come from the U.S.-Mexico border. They say that our current migration polices are causing world-wide problems with supplies of blood.

The Mexican nationals cannot, by a Mexican law enacted in 1987, sell their blood inside Mexico. There apparently is nothing in Mexican law that forbids its people from leaving the nation to sell their blood.

But the U.S. government in the last year or so, for Covid-19 reasons, has ruled that non-immigrant Mexican nationals cannot cross the border to sell their blood to American blood banks. This deals largely with Mexican nationals with border-crossing cards. The industry, as you might imagine, is upset, and has sued the federal government.

As the story unfolds it sounds like a mirror of the familiar issue of the use of foreign workers’ labor, and the payments made for it, except that blood has been substituted for work. There is a limited supply of both blood and labor and industry wants to change the rules to expand those supplies so that it saves money — and people at the bottom of the labor market suffer accordingly. (I have not seen this notion in print.)

And the cutting edge of the problem is at the U.S.-Mexico border — does this sound familiar?

One thing the industry could do is to raise its prices; but just as industry in general does not want to raise wages in the face of a labor shortage, so the blood banks do not want to raise their prices or set up new ways of finding a greater supply. So it sues the feds.

Interestingly, we are not talking about the American Red Cross here, which so many of us identify with blood drives. Those suing the U.S. government are not U.S. corporations: they are, according to a ProPublica account, the “Spain-based Grifols and CSL of Australia”, two entities new to me.

There’s a further parallel with international migration policies on this scene, those suing want to keep open an American blood-acceptance program that is more exploitative of the blood donors than those of other nations’ programs, just as U.S. foreign-worker programs are often more exploitative than those of Western Europe. The ProPublica article continues:

Many countries place strict limits on blood donations — Germany, for example, allows a maximum of 60 donations per year with intensive checkups before every fifth donation. But the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require comparable donor checkups and allows people visiting American clinics to sell their blood twice a week, or up to 104 times a year.

The limits that other countries set on blood donations have made the U.S. one of the world’s leading exporters of blood. In 2020, U.S. facilities collected 38.2 million liters of plasma for the production of medicine, accounting for approximately 60% of such blood plasma collected worldwide.

My assumption, knowing a bit about the Mexican government and nothing about blood banks, is that back in the 1980s Mexico City noticed the exploitation of its blood sellers by middlemen; then realizing it could not effectively regulate the practice, it simply abolished the business. Meanwhile, if you wanted to give a pint or liter of blood (for free) to your ailing brother, that was OK.

It would seem to make sense for Mexico to get back in the blood bank business if it could find some competent and non-corrupt agency to take on the task, such as one or more of the following: the Mexican Navy (said to be one of the nation’s most honest entities), the Swedish Red Cross, the American Peace Corps, or Doctors Without Borders.

The new entity would start collecting blood — and using German-type regulations with the donors — in its own border communities where there is a known supply of blood sellers. Ideally, it would extend its operations later to impoverished Mexican states, such as Jalisco and Oaxaca, the sources of much illegal migration to the States. Then Mexican blood could aid the Mexican economy, rather than ours or those of the Spanish and Australian firms now suing the United States, and perhaps dampen the emigration pressures.

All of that sounds too good to be true, and it probably is.