How a Republican border trip amplified a bogus tuberculosis rumor
Local public health officials quickly debunked rumors of an outbreak
The office of Rep. John Joyce on Tuesday pulled back the congressman’s bogus claim that immigrants seeking refuge over the Arizona border brought drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis to the U.S.
Joyce made the false claim in a briefing with reporters during a congressional trip led by Arizona GOP Rep. Andy Biggs last week to the U.S.-Mexican border near Yuma, Ariz. The claim was then echoed in the national press.
“My concern is what about the person who wasn’t coughing and wasn’t recognized as having tuberculosis, and they didn’t come here for treatment for their disease,” Joyce said. “They could be released in a day and a half and be sitting at a restaurant (table) beside you.”
Local public health officials quickly shot down rumors of an outbreak, clarifying that there have been zero cases of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis in the county for the last six to seven years, and further, no present cases of tuberculosis in Yuma at all.
“I can say, after confirming with the Yuma County Health District, there is no drug-resistant tuberculosis in Yuma County,” Kevin Tunell, a Yuma County spokesman told the Arizona Republic. “Further, there are no cases of tuberculosis involving migrants in Yuma County at this time.”
The 13th District Republican, a dermatologist by trade, is a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump and has echoed his calls for a border wall.
.@RepPeteStauber and I enjoyed getting a perspective on the southern border from the air courtesy of the folks at DEA. We were able to see the vast stretches of border that our law enforcement officials have to monitor every single day. pic.twitter.com/NMfSE21014
— John Joyce (@RepJohnJoyce) April 17, 2019
The unfounded rumor of a public health crisis in Yuma follows several viral and misleading stories in conservative media that families seeking asylum from Central America were bringing in dangerous infections. Some of those stories have garnered hundreds of thousands of shares on social media.
Respiratory infections like the flu were a concern for border authorities last winter when asylum seekers were camped in crowded and unhygienic conditions.
Fears of infectious disease have been used by conservative pundits and Trump to stoke xenophobia and push for a border wall.
The claim about tuberculosis in Yuma originated with Jonathan Lines, a former chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, the Pennsylvania Tribune-Review reported.
Lines made unsubstantiated claims about tuberculosis in a video posted to the Pennsylvania congressman’s Facebook page that has since been removed.
Biggs designated Lines to lead a delegation of Republican lawmakers along the border. The group also included Republican Reps. Duncan Hunter of California, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, Dusty Johnson of South Dakota and Pete Stauber of Minnesota.
The group posted photos andvideos of themselves inspecting the border to tout their anti-immigration bona fides.
“You have guys that come through here that do this for a living…they bring groups across, they bring drugs across.”
Sheriff Mark Lamb from @PinalCSO showed us today how illegal immigrants and smugglers travel through the Arizona desert. @RepAndyBiggsAZ @sherifflamb1 pic.twitter.com/PYMEDbenlS
— Rep. Matt Gaetz (@RepMattGaetz) April 18, 2019
The first-term congressman trusted the credibility of Lines, who is a board member of the Arizona-Mexico Commission, a 501(c)4 advocacy organization chaired by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey with the aim of boosting bilateral trade, according to an aide.
“Congressman Joyce did not expect to be given bad information by someone in that position, and always wants to be accurate, which is why he was incredibly disappointed to learn there was a problem with Mr. Lines’ information and immediately removed the video of Mr. Lines discussing tuberculosis at the border from his congressional Facebook page,” said spokesman Andrew Romeo.
While Lines has since sought to clarify the rumor, his source — Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot — has stuck by the claim that public health officials have worked to debunk, according to the Arizona Republic.
The trip came as Mayor of Yuma Douglas Nicholls campaigned for federal funding to house and feed Central American families arriving to the area. The community’s newly opened shelter is already stretched beyond its capacity of 200 individuals by about 120 individuals.
The city of Yuma has directed no municipal funding towards the migrants, relying on relief from nonprofits, the New York Times reported.