A new coronavirus originating in the city of Wuhan, China, is raising global health concerns.
The virus, which is described as a severe flu transmitted from infected animals to humans, has sickened several hundred people and had led to at least 17 deaths.
While most of the outbreak has occurred in China and Asian countries, the United States confirmed its first case this past week in a man in Washington State.
With more than a third of a billion individuals entering though U.S. ports of entry by land, sea, or air on an annual basis (plus those who enter illegally, undetected) there is a legitimate concern that the disease may spread quickly without an improvement in the nation’s immigration screening capability, funding, and resources.
The idea of preventing diseases, carried by unsuspecting travelers, from entering the country is not a novel idea. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, former President Barack Obama called the epidemic a “national security priority” and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), under his leadership, conducted entry screenings on 7,770 adults and children at various ports of entries.
Currently, at U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) 20 largest ports of entries, the CDC offers its scientists, doctors, nurses, and other public heath officials to evaluate all arriving sick travelers and helps prevent any communicable diseases from spreading into the interior of the country.
Though CBP has this assistance at some of its ports of entries, it does not have this luxury at the various ports of entries along the U.S.-Mexico border. In fact, out of 50 potential border crossings between the two countries, the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine (DGMQ) operates in only two locations.
There is heighted concern as earlier this week, Mexico reported a potential case of the virus in its northern border state of Tamaulipas, at a time where authorities at the southern border continue to apprehend more than 40,000 migrants monthly.
With tens of thousands of migrants attempting to seek asylum in the United States fraudulently, CBP manpower is stretched thin and medical resources also remain depleted. With insufficient personnel, insufficient resources, and overcrowded shelters, the likelihood of a migrant entering the country and transmitting the disease should not be ruled out.
It’s unreasonable to expect all CBP officials to identify those with potential coronavirus in the matter of seconds they have with each migrant, as they are not doctors. It’s also unreasonable to have CDC officials stationed at all ports of entries as its staff is not unlimited.
But what is reasonable is for Congress to reform our immigration laws to close the political asylum loopholes that are driving migrants to come at high rates at the southern border. Large-scale asylum abuse is predictable and preventable. Other crises, such as the outbreak of deadly communicable diseases, are not. But what we can do is ensure that the manpower and resources we have can be effectively deployed when we are confronted by circumstances such as the outbreak of diseases that threaten national health.
Congress also has the ability to increase funding at the southern border to improve medical resources, increase personnel, and expand detention space to reduce the likelihood of the disease from spreading, but it refuses to do so because of increased polarization.
Though it remains to be seen if there is active coronavirus at the southern border, much like President Obama did in 2014, the Trump administration with the support of Congress should minimize any potential risk and help prevent it from entering the country at a time where Americans fear of its rapid expansion.