Homeland secretary sees no reason to close border with Mexico

Closing the U.S. border with Mexico would not help prevent the spread of swine flu, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano told lawmakers on Wednesday.

"Making such a closure right now has not been merited by the facts," Napolitano said at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing.

"I don't think there are any" conditions that would warrant closing the border, added Rear Adm. Anne Schuchat, the interim deputy director for science and public health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in response to questioning from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

"The most effective strategy right now is to focus on where we have illness," she said.

McCain remained unconvinced. "We need to be prepared to close the border with Mexico if the swine flu outbreak escalates further," he said. "I hope you'll continue to revisit this issue of whether we need to close the border or not."

Some senators urged caution. "We need to let science lead the way here and make reasonable decisions, rational decisions," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. Acting CDC Director Richard Besser said 91 cases of the H1N1 virus have emerged in 10 states, with 51 in New York, 16 in Texas and 14 in California. Two each have been confirmed in Kansas, Massachusetts and Michigan, with single cases in Arizona, Indiana, Nevada and Ohio. Officials also announced the first U.S. death from swine flu, a nearly 2-year-old Mexican boy in Texas.

Napolitano said the $1.5 billion for swine flu that President Obama requested on Tuesday be included in the supplemental spending bill would be used primarily to purchase antiviral medication if needed. The number "is a rough estimate and it is gauged on perhaps having to purchase more antivirals," she said. She told lawmakers her department has enough money to deal with the crisis in the interim until the supplemental funding bill is approved. The country has stockpiled 50 million courses of antiviral drugs, some of which are set aside for distribution to states. Twenty-five percent of the states' allotment will be sent by Sunday, Napolitano said.

"We have placed priority on states with confirmed cases of H1N1 and of course with the Southwest border," she said.

Customs and Border Protection officials are using "passive surveillance" to monitor whether travelers coming into the United States are ill, she said, which prompted lawmakers to call for more intensive scrutiny. "Other countries are being far more aggressive in their screening," said Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine. "I would really hope that we would pursue vigorously better technological and scientific and, frankly, closer observation of people going across the border than is currently the case," McCain said.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec