SARS Waiting to Cross Our Borders

America's most recent national defense strategy, rolled out after the attacks on New York and Washington, rests on the oft-repeated assertion that "everything changed on September 11."

By all accounts, America had failed to perceive or at least act against a threat that had gathered for years, and it seemed that it was only after buildings were falling down that the decisive steps were taken to end the threat.

Since the attacks, hundreds of news stories have been written about the clues missed along the way, from a failure to take custody of terrorists when it was offered or a decision to disregard critical information developed by law enforcement.

Though the laws and the apparatus that enabled us to solve the problem of terrorism were already in place, it took a catastrophic event for America to find the will.

The attacks resulted in a rare instance of complete political consensus. Since then, President Bush has gone full-bore in attacking the problem, and we are immeasurably safer than we were less than two years ago.

For almost two decades there have been indications that illegal immigration has developed into something more than a matter of simple law-breaking. But even when a major polling organization releases results showing that 85 percent of Americans believe illegal immigration to be a serious problem, as the Roper Center (search) did last week, you'd never know it by looking at the conduct of our government.

Every step toward meaningful immigration enforcement taken within the last twenty years has been quickly dismantled.

In 1986, 2.7 million illegal aliens — 85 percent of whom were nationals of Mexico or the countries of Latin America — were amnestied and an employer-sanctions regime was implemented to prevent the employment of illegal aliens.

To this day, employer sanctions remain basically unenforced: With an estimated illegal-alien population of between 8 million and 11 million, only 320 U.S. employers were sanctioned last year.

In 1996, when public assistance to illegal aliens had reached $8 billion per year, the Welfare Reform Act was signed and federal cash public assistance to illegal aliens was outlawed.

Today, because so many new illegal aliens enter the country each year, U.S. taxpayers are again subsidizing the lives of illegal immigrants (through non-cash forms of federal public assistance) at pre-1996 levels.

It's now clear America will have to endure a disaster on the order of the September 2001 terror attacks before the federal government finds the resolve to end the problem of illegal immigration. SARS (search) will make that happen.

The public-health systems of Mexico and the Central American countries are unable to effectively contain disease outbreaks.

Cholera (search), which is spread by contaminated water and food and kills its victims through severe dehydration, never goes away in Central America. Between 1991 and 2000, 1,275,230 cases of cholera were reported throughout the region. Dengue fever (search) is nearly epidemic.

Tuberculosis (search) is communicated in a fashion similar to SARS, and it may tell us what we can expect from SARS in the future. Tuberculosis and SARS are transmitted through air particles infected with the bacilli (or virus) when a person with the illness coughs, sneezes or spits droplets into the air and someone else breathes them in.

Tuberculosis affects more people in Mexico and Central America each year, and it killed 75,000 people in Latin America in 1995 alone. In many areas of the U.S., the majority of new tuberculosis cases are attributable to immigrants entering with the disease.

Last year, northern Virginia's tuberculosis rate jumped 17 percent, with one county reporting a 188 percent increase over the prior year. State health officials attributed the jump chiefly to an influx of new immigrants, and noted that drug-resistant TB strains they located were traceable to specific immigrant communities.

In 2000, the Indiana University School of Medicine (search) investigated an outbreak of multi-drug resistant TB and found that it was brought into the state by a group of Mexican nationals.

In the last three years, New York City's Tuberculosis Control Program (search) has found that as much as 64 percent of new tuberculosis cases occur among immigrants, and it found that in 2001, 81 percent of new tuberculosis cases were those of immigrants.

One can conclude only that illnesses that are transmissible through the air, and which exist in the populations of Mexico and Central America, can also spread quickly throughout the United States.

Contrary to most press reports, which maintain that SARS has not hit Mexico, Mexican health authorities reported the country's first case of SARS by April 11. Between 300,000 and 500,000 people illegally cross the U.S. / Mexican border each year.

Although the U.S has one of the most sophisticated mechanisms for insuring immigrant health in the world — and barring would-be immigrants who are afflicted with diseases of public health significance — our border enforcement is so substandard that a half million people manage to make it into the country illegally each year. Not one of them encounters immigration authorities, let alone the BCIS (formerly INS) civil surgeons whose job it is to test immigrants for communicable diseases.

Add to this an existing population of as many as 11 million illegal immigrants, whose members' underground existence prevents them from asking for directions on the street, let alone participating in official efforts to quell a SARS outbreak, and the U.S. has an embryonic public health disaster that no other nation confronts.

It's possible, though unlikely, that a cure for SARS is around the corner. It's far more likely that SARS will soon come across our southern border in large numbers. If it does, Americans will finally see that their government is capable of enforcing the U.S./Mexican border. They may wonder why it took two decades and trillions of taxpayer dollars before it happened.

Matt Hayes began practicing immigration law shortly after graduating from Pace University School of Law in 1994, representing new immigrants in civil and criminal matters. He teaches at Berkeley College, and is author of The New Immigration Law and Practice, a textbook to be published by West Legal Publications in October, 2003.

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