Conservative Republicans are tying the widening Ebola scare to the nation's debate over border security, warning that the threat of Ebola and other 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 an increasingly hot political topic as Republicans hammer the Obama administration for its handling of the crisis and Democrats accuse GOP politicians of unfounded scare tactics by portraying Ebola as a potential border threat.
Ebola is also shaping up as a priority issue in the upcoming 2015 legislative session that convenes in January. A 17-member task force appointed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry is forging recommendations to toughen 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 McClatchy in an email. “These contagions do not heed borders or geographic boundaries, turning an outbreak anywhere into a risk everywhere."
Hopes that the Ebola scare could be abating faded late Friday with reports that a New York physician who helped Ebola patients in West Africa as a member of Doctors without Borders had been hospitalized with the virus.
Texas became the focus of international attention as the site of America’s first Ebola case when Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan was admitted at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas on Sept. 25 and died of the disease on Oct. 8. Two nurses who cared for Duncan were hospitalized.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has been touted as a potential presidential candidate in 2016, as well several Republican political candidates in other states, have called for toughened border safeguards against Ebola after a top U.S. military leader warned that immigrants being smuggled into the United States illegally could bring the disease into the country with them.
“The immediate thing that really keeps me up awake at night, I tell you it’s the Ebola issue,” Marine Corps General John F. Kelly, said in appearance at National Defense University in Washington. As commander of 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, warning that an outbreak in the Caribbean or Central America could send thousands of refugees into the United States to flee the disease or obtain health care in U.S. treatment centers. He also said that immigrants from West African countries engulfed by Ebola could be coming into the United States illegally through international human smuggling networks.
“If Ebola breaks out in Haiti or in Central America, I think it is literally ‘Katie, bar the door’ in terms of mass migration of Central Americans into the United States,” he said, warning that the scale of the migration would make an earlier surge of 68,000 unaccompanied children into the United States look like a “small problem.”
Cruz cited Kelly’s warnings of a “mass migration” in criticizing the Obama administration during an appearance last week CNN, saying the administration “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 GOP members of Texas’ congressional delegation, have demanded that the Obama administration ban travel from the three African countries hardest hit by Ebola – Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The Department of Homeland Security has ordered enhanced screening at five U.S airports that handle 94 percent of travelers from the three countries but has stopped short of an outright ban.
Other Republicans have also raised the Ebola threat as well as a potential U.S. attack by Islamic State terrorists to fault the administration for lax border enforcement. “We have ISIS, we have Ebola,” Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, 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 “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," said Brown. "And yet we do nothing to secure our border.”
Texas State Sen. Jose Rodriguez, an El Paso Democrat, chairman of the Senate Hispanic Caucus, said the Republican charges were an unwarranted attempt to discredit the Obama administration, adding that public officials in his Texas border city have seen nothing to suggest a potential threat from Ebola.
“I’m not aware of any threats of Ebola coming from the southern border,” said Rodriguez. “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.”
State Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, a physician, said the cross-border threat of Ebola is a “theoretical possibility” but he said he’s more worried about other diseases such as drug-resistant tuberculosis or meningitis. “Ebola is more likely to fly into this country,” said Burgess, who like Cruz and other Republicans is calling for a travel ban for Ebola-ridden countries.
Dave Montgomery is a special correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.