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Texplainer: Are Illegal Immigrants Importing Illness?

In a recent Tribune article, state Rep. Leo Berman alleged that illegal immigrants are bringing infectious diseases into Texas. Is he right?

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Hey, Texplainer: In a recent Tribune article, state Rep. Leo Berman alleged that illegal immigrants are bringing infectious diseases into Texas. Is he right?

In a recent interview with the Tribune, state Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, specifically said illegal immigrants are bringing in tuberculosis, malaria, polio, leprosy — even the plague. 

For most of the diseases on the list, it’s impossible to determine precisely how many people that have contracted them are in the country illegally. The Texas Department of State Health Services, which monitors the rates of those diseases, does not track them according to immigration status. However, for some diseases, it does keep track of which cases occur in people that were born outside the United States — a group that could include naturalized citizens, legal immigrants and illegal immigrants.

In 2009, of 1,501 cases of tuberculosis reported in Texas, 798 of the patients were foreign born. For tuberculosis, DSHS tracks separately the number of cases that occur while individuals are in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. In 2009, that number was 57. So the likely total of illegal immigrants with tuberculosis in Texas in 2009 was between 57 and 798. But the specific number is unknown.

In 2010, there were 26 new cases of Hansen’s Disease (also known as leprosy) in Texas. In that same year, 38 percent of the cases were in foreign-born individuals. Though, once again, that category includes naturalized citizens and legal immigrants in addition to illegal immigrants.

There were 970 cases of malaria reported in Texas from 2000-09. According to a DSHS spokesman, the vast majority, if not all of the cases, were from exposure to infected mosquitoes while visiting areas like India, sub-Saharan Africa and the Philippines, where malaria is endemic.

The two on Berman’s list that seem verifiably erroneous are polio and the plague. There was only one case of the plague reported in Texas from 2000 to 2009. An individual was exposed to an infected flea while hunting in New Mexico in 2006.

The most recent polio case reported in Texas was in 1995, when a person was exposed to the virus while visiting another country. The last case of polio contracted in the United States was back in 1979.

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