Tuberculosis incident exploits weak border

Friday, June 8, 2007
By U.S. Representative Bart Gordon

When tuberculosis patient Andrew Speaker crossed the U.S. border at Champlain, N.Y., he demonstrated one more reason why improved border security is critical.

It is troubling that a person known to have an extremely drug-resistant disease could leave and return to the country unimpeded. It is simply unacceptable to know that Mr. Speaker could do this even when authorities were looking for him.

The breakdowns that allowed Mr. Speaker to take two transatlantic flights, visit five countries, and return to the United States by driving across the Canadian border have sparked oversight hearings in the Senate and House.

Almost six years after the September 11, 2001, attacks, this incident shows that the agencies responsible for protecting us still have not learned to communicate and coordinate. Flawed procedures and miscommunication among federal agencies played a part this time just as they did in 2001.

This time it was thankfully not a terrorist plot. But if an average person like Mr. Speaker can evade our border security, then how can we trust our ability to stop a determined terrorist who wants to do harm to Americans?

Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner Ralph Basham laid the blame for the Speaker incident squarely on a lone border patrol agent who failed to detain him at the border. In a self-serving assessment during the House hearing, Basham said his agency "had an opportunity to detain Mr. Speaker at the border, and we missed."

Well, what else are we missing?

Approximately 500,000 people enter the U.S. unlawfully each year. These are people who are not given even a cursory glance by Customs officials or Border Patrol agents.

At a time when the Senate has been debating changes to our immigration laws to address the estimated 12 million people currently residing in the U.S. illegally, this incident should remind us why any immigration reform must focus on border security first.

Rather than provide amnesty through ill-conceived proposals like the Senate's Z visa plan, a good place to start is by fixing communications between the agencies responsible for protecting us while putting more and better trained officers along the border.

The only true way to secure our borders is to strengthen enforcement along the borders and impose our current laws. As Mr. Speaker has shown us, there certainly is a need for improvement.