Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Swine flu aside, border agents see illness often

U.S. Border Patrol agents along the southwestern border with Mexico are on alert for illegal immigrants who may have swine flu, but being on the lookout for contagious diseases is really an everyday part of their jobs.

It’s not unusual for agents who capture illegal immigrants to discover someone with a suspicious cough or illness, and migrants have been found with diseases such as tuberculosis.

But the swine flu outbreak first reported in Mexico did heighten awareness for agents in the field.

“First of all we take the situation with H1N1 (swine flu) very seriously. We share the view that people should be aware but not alarmed or in a state of panic,” said Doug Mosier, spokesman for the patrol’s El Paso, Texas, sector. “We have been the first line of defense between the ports of entry since 1924, so being exposed to various communicable diseases historically is something we’ve always been vulnerable to and been a part of.”

The Border Patrol follows a standard procedure in which immigrants who have been arrested and who show obvious symptoms are given a breathing mask to keep others from continued direct exposure. Border Patrol vehicles used to transport illegal immigrants to processing centers are equipped with separate ventilation systems to protect agents, said Lloyd Easterling, a Border Patrol spokesman in Washington.

The Border Patrol on Friday couldn’t immediately provide any reports on how many illegal immigrants with communicable diseases they encounter or other specific diseases they’ve seen.

The flu outbreak has brought a reaction from some federal workers who regularly screen migrants. A labor union representing Customs and Border Protection officers who man border crossings asked this week that its officers be allowed to wear masks and other protective gear while checking travelers who might have been exposed to swine flu.

But the union for Border Patrol agents, who look for those who have crossed illegally, didn’t follow suit. Agents already have such equipment available and use it at their discretion.

“Name the disease, and since we catch people from all over the globe, there is the risk of encountering someone with a communicable disease,” said T.J. Bonner, a Border Patrol agent and president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing agents.

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