Conservative Republicans are tying the widening Ebola scare to the nation’s debate over border security, warning that the threat of infectious diseases ratchets up the need for tougher enforcement and health safeguards along the porous southern border.
After a month of global attention, Ebola is becoming a hot political topic as Republicans hammer the Obama administration for its handling of the crisis and Democrats accuse the GOP of engaging in scare tactics by portraying the illness as a border threat.
Ebola is also shaping up as a priority issue in the 2015 legislative session, which convenes in January. A 17-member task force appointed by Gov. Rick Perry is forging recommendations to improve the state’s ability to combat the disease, including some that will likely require approval by lawmakers.
“We live in a global world, where infectious diseases are a mere airline ticket away,” task force Director Brett Giroir, CEO of the Texas A&M Health Science Center, told the Star-Telegram in an email. “These contagions do not heed borders or geographic boundaries, turning an outbreak anywhere into a risk everywhere.”
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Hopes that the Ebola scare could be abating faded with reports that a New York physician who treated Ebola patients in West Africa as part of Doctors Without Borders had been hospitalized with the virus.
Texas drew international attention as the site of America’s first Ebola case. Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan was admitted to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas on Sept. 25 and died Oct. 8. Two nurses who cared for him were hospitalized.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has been touted as a presidential contender, and several Republican political candidates in other states have called for toughened border safeguards against Ebola.
That followed a warning by a top U.S. military leader that immigrants being smuggled into the U.S. could bring the disease with them.
“The immediate thing that really keeps me up awake at night, I tell you, it’s the Ebola issue,” Marine Gen. John F. Kelly said in an appearance at National Defense University in Washington, D.C. As head of the U.S. Southern Command, Kelly oversees U.S. military policy in Latin America.
“There is no way you can keep Ebola in West Africa,” Kelly said.
An outbreak in the Caribbean or Central America, he said, could cause thousands to enter the U.S. to flee the disease or seek care in U.S. treatment centers. He also said immigrants from West African countries engulfed by Ebola could be entering the U.S. illegally through human-smuggling networks.
“If Ebola breaks out in Haiti or in Central America, I think it is literally Katy bar the door in terms of mass migration of Central Americans into the United States,” he said.
The scale of it would make an earlier surge of 68,000 unaccompanied children look like a “small problem,” he said.
During a recent appearance on CNN, Cruz cited Kelly’s warnings of a “mass migration” in criticizing the Obama administration, saying the White House “unfortunately is not acting to protect our southern borders or to restrict commercial airline flights from places with an active outbreak” of Ebola.
Cruz and other Republicans, including Perry and members of the state’s congressional delegation, have demanded that the Obama administration ban travel from the three African countries hit hardest by Ebola — Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The Homeland Security Department has ordered enhanced screening at five U.S. airports that handle 94 percent of travelers from the three countries, but it has stopped short of a ban.
‘We have ISIS; we have Ebola’
Other Republicans have raised the Ebola threat alongside a potential attack by Islamic State terrorists in accusing the administration of lax border enforcement.
“We have ISIS; we have Ebola,” Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said during a debate with independent opponent Greg Orman. “We have to secure the border.”
Scott Brown, a Republican Senate candidate in New Hampshire, said the border is so porous that “anyone can walk across it.”
“I think it’s naive to think that people aren’t going to be walking through here who have those types of diseases and/or other types of intent — criminal or terrorist,” Brown said. “And yet we do nothing to secure our border.”
Texas state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, chairman of the Senate Hispanic Caucus, said the Republican charges are merely an attempt to discredit the Obama administration, adding that officials in his border city have seen nothing to suggest a threat from Ebola.
“I’m not aware of any threats of Ebola coming from the southern border,” he said. “This is just … another manifestation of fear,” he added, saying “the biggest threat in Texas is the underfunding of education.”
State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, chairman of the House Committee on Counties, who presided over a recent hearing on Ebola, also denounced Republican claims.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “People should be ashamed of themselves for using that kind of innuendo in a serious health emergency.”
U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, a physician, said that the cross-border threat of Ebola is a “theoretical possibility” but that he is more worried about other diseases, such as drug-resistant tuberculosis or meningitis.
“Ebola is more likely to fly into this country,” said Burgess, who is also calling for a travel ban for Ebola-ridden countries.