Outbreak on the Border

Federal health authorities contain pneumonia, swine flu outbreaks among illegal children in California

Immigrant children held at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility / AP
July 14, 2014

Health authorities at a Navy base in Southern California took steps last weekend to curtail an outbreak of pneumonia and swine flu among illegal immigrant children housed at the facility, according to U.S. officials.

The outbreak of disease among several of the nearly 600 immigrant children at the Naval Base Ventura County, located north of Los Angeles, initially was thought to be caused by deadly bacterial streptococcal meningitis, according to one official close to the issue.

However, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said he was not aware of any cases of meningitis at the base.

The pneumonia cases and meningitis scare last weekend followed two cases of H1N1 swine flu among other child immigrants—one at the California base and another in Texas. The virus caused a global pandemic in 2009, but officials said it is considered less dangerous than the pneumonia and initially suspected meningitis outbreak that began over the past weekend.

Naval officials, along with HHS and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) officials, sought to block the disease outbreak by quarantines and halting transfers of children into and out of the facility.

Several of the children developed symptoms that included fever and were at first thought to be meningitis.

The swine flu case, discovered late last week, involved a 16-year-old Salvadoran boy who, like others at the facility, had been transferred recently from Nogales, Ariz.

The sick children were moved to local hospitals where they are being treated.

HHS spokesman Kenneth J. Wolfe said reports of respiratory illness at the naval base involved minors who had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border and who had been relocated.

"Preliminary reports indicate that several unaccompanied minors in the shelter had become ill with what appears to be pneumonia and influenza," he said in a statement to the Free Beacon. The illnesses "likely pose little or no risk to the general public," he added.

The arriving children have been screened at U.S. border stations for health problems and given medical treatment if needed, he said.

For Pentagon locations, children have been given childhood vaccinations three days prior to entering Defense Department facilities.

"If it is determined that children have certain communicable diseases or have been exposed to such communicable diseases, they are placed in a program or facility that has the capacity to quarantine," Wolfe said. "Children with serious health conditions are treated at local hospitals. The cost of this care is fully paid by the federal government."

Both diseases are contagious. According to the CDC, pneumonia is caused by bacteria or viruses and can be severe.

The H1N1 virus is considered less dangerous and has been detected in the United States since the 2009 pandemic. The swine flu virus jumped from pigs to humans and can be fatal in some cases.

The boy who contracted swine flu was part of the flood of illegal immigrant children who have crossed the Mexican border into the United States over the past several months. The crisis is straining both border patrol and law enforcement resources.

Other immigrant children are being held at bases in Texas and Oklahoma. The current plan calls for releasing the immigrant children to relatives prior to their court proceedings on illegal immigration charges.

A U.S. official said that in addition to the Salvadoran youth treated for swine flu, another case of swine flu was detected in June at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. More than 1,000 immigrant children are being held at Lackland.

CDC did not comment directly on the disease outbreaks in California.

"CDC is providing consultation to federal partners that are leading the response to the increase in unaccompanied children entering the United States," the center said in a statement.

The support includes consultation on medical screening and providing disease surveillance screening tools.

The disease outbreak is the latest element of a burgeoning immigration crisis that has left the Obama administration scrambling for a solution.

So far, the main response from the White House to the flood of immigrants, mainly in Texas and Arizona, has been to apply diplomatic pressure on Central and South American governments to step up border enforcement in halting the northward migration.

The immigration crisis was triggered by reports in Central America that the United States was offering amnesty to children who reached the country.

The refugee tide is said to be the result Central Americans seeking to flee poverty and violence in the region.

However, it also appears the flood of illegal immigrants is based on beliefs among those in the region that they can gain entry using a two-step process—first sending thousands of children on a dangerous migration northward into the United States, and then later anticipating that the U.S. government will grant entry to some or the rest of their families in a humanitarian gesture.

The outbreaks at the base followed a tour of the Ventura naval facility last week by pro-immigration supporters. The visit by community leaders and local elected officials followed earlier anti-illegal immigrant protests at some locations, such as Murrieta, Calif., where busloads of immigrant children were turned away by people angered at the immigrant flood that has taxed governments and increased crime.

State Sen. Kevin de Leon told the Los Angeles Times after the visit that "collectively, we came to the conclusion that we are quite satisfied with the conditions" at the Naval base.

President Barack Obama has not dealt directly with the crisis. During a recent visit to Denver, the president was photographed drinking beer and playing pool while declining to visit the border or facilities where the children are being held in crowded, refugee-camp-like conditions.

The White House instead has asked Congress to approve $3.7 billion for dealing with the crisis. Both the House and Senate have balked at providing the funding during a time of fiscal austerity.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest criticized Republicans on Monday for not dealing with the immigration crisis during a White House press briefing.

"We've seen a lot of talk from Republicans about how urgent and pressing this situation is, but not a lot of action when it comes to acting on a proposal the president has now put forward," he said.

The thousands of immigrants currently are caught up in a government bureaucratic legal system that is delaying rapid deportation back to their home countries.

Critics of the delay say the illegals should be flown back without delay to their home countries, which include Guatemala and El Salvador, on military transport aircraft.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R.) said on CBS on Sunday that the president is ultimately responsible for the border crisis.

Perry said he alerted the president in May 2012 to the flood of alien children who were traveling north on trains "and we laid out exactly what we felt was going to happen if we didn't address that."

"And now we're seeing that become reality, with literally tens of thousands of these young children making this long, arduous, very dangerous trip, being separated from their parents," Perry said on "Face the Nation."

"And it could have been stopped years ago had the administration listened, had the administration been focused on the border with Texas," Perry said.