The military’s top official responsible for Latin America says he’s concerned illegal immigrants from West Africa could already be sneaking across the porous southern border carrying Ebola, adding a new potential danger the White House will have to grapple with.
Already, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have panned President Obama’s new proposal to start taking the temperature of passengers arriving from West Africa at five U.S. airports.
The bipartisan group of congressmen told Mr. Obama to issue a full-blown travel ban prohibiting citizens of affected countries from entering the U.S., and imposing a quarantine on any travelers who arrive from West Africa.
But legal channels may not be the only vulnerability. Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, said he was in Costa Rica last week and encountered an embassy employee who’d run across a handful of Liberian men preparing to be smuggled into the U.S. as illegal immigrants.
“Anything can ride on the network,” Gen. Kelly said this week at the National Defense University in Washington.
He said the danger is two-fold: Not only might illegal immigrants from Africa enter the U.S. unchecked, but if Ebola spreads to Central America it could spark a new wave of illegal immigration to the U.S. that would make this summer’s surge “look like a small problem.”
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“If Ebola breaks out in Haiti or in Central America, I think it is literally ‘Katie bar the door’ in terms of the mass migration of Central Americans into the United States,” the general said.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Thursday defended the steps he’s taken so far, which will soon include U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents giving closer scrutiny at five U.S. airports to travelers from the three most heavily affected West African countries. Officers will be asked to take the temperature of travelers to try to spot fever, which is one of the early symptoms of the disease.
Mr. Johnson said only about 150 people a day come from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, and more than 90 percent of them go through the five international airports he’s targeted in New Jersey, New York, Virginia, Georgia and Illinois.
The secretary also issued a pointed plea to reporters to show “responsibility” in their reporting and avid coverage “that is certain to feed the flames of fear, anxiety and suspicion.”
But both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill said more needs to be done to push the nation’s barrier against Ebola overseas, rather than meeting it in U.S. airports.
“Until this disease is controlled and wiped out, the president should begin a ban on air travel to and from infected regions of Africa,” said Rep. Dennis Ross, one of the lawmakers to sign a letter to Mr. Obama demanding the changes.
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The letter-writers pointed out that 27 African countries have already taken those steps, “but the United States inexplicably has not.”
One Liberian man who entered the U.S. on a visa and was later diagnosed with Ebola died earlier this week in Texas.
The House Homeland Security Committee will hold a field hearing in Dallas on Friday to examine that case and look at whether Mr. Johnson, the Centers for Disease Control and other federal agencies are doing enough.
The Obama administration has said an outbreak in the U.S. is not likely, but most Americans disagree, with 62 percent of those surveyed in a new Reason-Rupe poll saying they expect one.