How a Republican border trip amplified a bogus tuberculosis rumor

Local public health officials quickly debunked rumors of an outbreak

US Army Ranger helps his unit erect a chain-link fence that will be topping with barbed wire parallel to the primary steel US/Mexico border fence to further fortify the border against people crossing illegally into the United States from Mexico on March 16, 2006 near the border town of near San Luis, south of Yuma, Arizona. Rep. Andy Biggs led a delegation of Republican lawmakers including John Joyce. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

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. 

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.

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

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