What is coming through our borders is just as important as who is coming through our borders. This goes for good things like new phones, clothes, and wine, as much as it goes for bad things like illicit drugs, weapons, and diseases.
I had an interesting experience on a recent trip to Australia with the House Intelligence Committee. When I landed in Perth, customs and immigration officials asked me many questions. Had I been in contact with any cattle over the past month? Was I up to date on my vaccinations? Had I been in a lake in the last six weeks? When I answered yes to the lake question, they put me in a separate quarantine line for processing.
I didn’t begrudge the Australians their many questions and concerns. I was visiting their country. They did not know what I was bringing with me or what I may have been recently exposed to, and it was their job to find out. Australia is an island, geographically isolated, and at ripe risk for a health catastrophe. An epidemic could wreak havoc on their population or ecosystem.
We live in a globalized age. Humans travel and trade more than ever before and new animal handling, agricultural, and land use practices are developed every year. While these are positives by many measures, the same factors contribute to fast-moving and border-jumping epidemics.
In truth, we had a close call with the gruesome 2014 Ebola epidemic. West African countries weren’t so lucky. The World Health Organization believes the reported 11,310 deaths understates the scope of how deadly and widespread the outbreak was. The Center for Disease Control (CDC), the U.S. Government’s national health protection agency, cited porous borders, highly mobile populations, and poor health infrastructure as leading factors in Ebola’s uncontrollable spread. Among the main reasons why Ebola was eventually contained was the CDC’s partnership with immigration authorities across West Africa and the United States. Identification procedures isolated Ebola-exposed travelers before they could spread the disease to further populations. When travelers entered a country through specified ports of entry, this protection regime was centralized and effective. When migrants slipped across rivers between Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone without going through the proper authorities, the disease flourished.
Proactive border security in the U.S. also allowed us to dedicate our resources toward developing vaccines and deploying doctors, nurses, and expertise to the front line of the Ebola epidemic, rather than focusing on outbreaks at home. Our nation ultimately played a critical role in containing the epidemic.
Border security does more than protect just our citizens, it protects our agricultural and economic interests. Minnesota is one of the largest pork-producing states in the U.S. The Star Tribune, the largest newspaper in the state, recently ran an article warning of the danger our farmers face from the rapidly spreading African swine fever. The virus spread from China into Western Europe in a matter of months, and exposure in the United States could decimate a $23 billion domestic industry. Questions at an airport, official border checkpoint, or seaport as simple as “have you been in contact with livestock in the past month?” can prevent these nightmare scenarios for our farmers and economy. These questions cannot be asked of migrant farm workers illegally entering our country. They can be asked of those entering our country legally.
For those who downplay the dangers posed by an epidemic, history offers a cautionary tale. World War I killed a combined 16 million combatants and civilians. The same year the war ended, the Spanish flu killed an estimated 50-100 million people. Microbes kill as easily as guns or bombs, and we cannot assume that circumstances will always favor us.
Protecting our citizens and our land is not xenophobic, but ensures the health and safety of all Americans. A well-secured border helps us welcome legal immigrants, turn away those who wish us harm, and protect against epidemics.