The Ebola epidemic has infected America’s political debate, if nothing else


This photo provided by the CDC shows an ebola Virus. U.S. health officials are monitoring the Ebola outbreak in Africa but say the risk of the deadly germ spreading to the United States is remote. (AP Photo/CDC)

On Monday morning, the conservative Web site Breitbart.com published a document that it said it had obtained from the Department of Homeland Security. "Among the significant revelations," Breitbart's Brandon Darby wrote, "are that individuals from nations currently suffering from the world’s largest Ebola outbreak have been caught attempting to sneak across the porous U.S. border." Specifically: "71 individuals."

First things first, I called the Customs and Border Patrol to see if the document is valid. And I was twice pointed to the Centers for Disease Control to answer questions, ostensibly because I used the word "Ebola." (Even government agents are skittish about the Ebola epidemic, it seems, albeit for different reasons.) Jim Burns, a public affairs spokesman for the CBP, suggested I look at the agency's statistics page, and I did. It wasn't helpful.

So let's take the Breitbart document, which bears the header of the Office of Intelligence and Investigative Liaison, at face value. Those 71 individuals are from two sets of data: those apprehended by the Border Patrol and those determined to be inadmissible by the Office of Field Operations. Below, the numbers for the countries most affected by the recent Ebola outbreak, as we tallied them from the document (which is here):

It's more than 71, even without our adding in Ivory Coast. But there are a lot of necessary modifiers to this, regardless of whether the data is or isn't accurate. The document appears to list year-to-date apprehensions -- meaning that some (if not all) of the figures above could have predated the emergence of the recent Ebola outbreak. Nor, by the way, are these apprehensions (or people turning themselves in) only at America's southern border; the document appears to list all apprehensions, including people who, say, flew to the U.S. (It even shows immigration paths from Africa to Europe, bypassing Texas entirely.)

So the document shows, in short, that a certain number of people from countries where Ebola now exists were at some point this year apprehended by the government.

Apprehended, mind you. These are not people wandering around Maryland; they're people who were taken into custody. The idea, apparently, is that others weren't apprehended and are wandering around Maryland. So, really, the report is: People from an area where there is a disease outbreak might be in America, because others from that country were stopped at the border, though there's no evidence that they are.

(One CBP staffer to whom I sent the Breitbart data wrote back: "I confirmed that those are NOT Ebola numbers." Well, yeah.)

The report bears mentioning because it is being mentioned. Fox News picked up the story, with a we're-just-asking-questions headline: "Ebola outbreak fuels concerns over health risks along US-Mexico border." It points out that Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), who is a medical doctor, raised the idea of infected people crossing the border -- and that Politifact "panned" his concerns, citing CDC data. But, the story continues, Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) subsequently also said immigrants could have the virus -- even children from Central America, somehow. (In its response to Gingrey, Politifact notes that there's never been a transmission of Ebola in the Western hemisphere.)

It was probably only a matter of time before our Ebola fears and the border crisis were drawn together, of course. America is very interested in the tragic epidemic in West Africa, primarily from a position of self-preservation. Over the weekend, a gentleman named Donald Trump demanded (as he is wont to do) that aid workers who'd become sick in Africa not be brought back to the United States -- presumably out of fear that their illness would spread. As the debate over how to deal with unaccompanied minors trying to enter the United States continues, some advocates of tightening restrictions have predictably pointed to the Breitbart report as proof that really bad things could happen.

We called the CDC. The agency, perhaps busy with other things, didn't respond to our request by the time this article went live, although the woman who answered the phone clearly had not heard the rumors about Ebola potentially sneaking its way across our border. According to the agency's Web site, the incubation period for Ebola is two to 21 days. That Breitbart-obtained document was dated July 20 -- 17 days ago. If the uncounted/un-apprehended people not indicated on that document haven't infected anyone by the end of the week, I have a feeling we're going to make it out of this thing okay.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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