Arizona Republican leaders played tour guide for a delegation of seven congressmen in Yuma last week as part of a trip to "observe the security and humanitarian crisis" on the southern border.
At least one of the congressmen returned to his home state with a fake claim that a dozen migrants crossed the international Yuma County border carrying a deadly disease. The false rumor also spread in Arizona during a radio segment involving a conservative commentator and Maricopa County Bill Montgomery.
Republican Congressman John Joyce of Pennsylvania incorrectly claimed to the Associated Press and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Friday that there are cases of tuberculosis among migrants apprehended by border agents in Yuma County.
Dr. Joyce, a dermatologist, said some of those cases were drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis, an infectious disease that can take between six to nine months to cure with a regimen of four daily antibiotics.
“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 during a conference call with reporters, according to the Associated Press. “They could be released in a day and a half and be sitting at a restaurant (table) beside you.”
However, the Yuma sector of the U.S. Border Patrol has no record of any in-custody migrant carrying a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis for at least seven years, according to spokesperson Justin Kallinger, adding that the relevant data only goes back to 2012.
"We are mandated by the county to contact them on diseases like drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis," he added. Yuma County spokesperson Kevin Tunell confirmed that the county received no such notice from border authorities.
Multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis is exceptionally rare. The Center for Disease Control reported just 128 cases of drug-resistant tuberculosis in the United States in 2017, the latest year for which complete data is available.
Andrew Romero, a spokesperson for Joyce, told Phoenix New Times that the congressman heard the claim from former Arizona Republican Party chairman Jonathan Lines, a Yuma resident, who guided the delegation on the afternoon visit last week to his city.
On April 16, Joyce's staff posted a video on Facebook in which Lines makes a claim of "12 confirmed cases of tuberculosis" in Yuma County that are "resistant to multiple drugs," though he does not specify who carried the disease and when they contracted it. Romero said Lines made it clear he was talking about migrants before the video was shot.
Lines said in the Facebook video that he heard the stat from Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot, who he said gathered the information from the "Western border sheriffs down in Del Rio, Texas."
Wilmot did not return a message for comment.
Somebody who answered the phone for Wilmot said the data was provided to the sheriff from the Border Patrol over a month ago.
"I don't know if it was provided to him officially or not," said the assistant, who declined to give her name. "But it did not originate from here."
The clip was removed from Facebook by Joyce's staff after an inquiry from New Times.
In a statement, Joyce spokesperson Romeo said the congressman had "no reason to suspect he was being given inaccurate information" by Lines.
"That being said, our office has taken down the Facebook video of Mr. Lines conveying the information regarding tuberculosis until we receive further clarification on the issue," Romeo added.
Lines — who was replaced as Arizona GOP chair by Kelli Ward in January — could not be reached for comment.
In addition to Representative Joyce, the delegation that visited the U.S. Border in Arizona also included Republican congressmen Dusty Johnson of North Dakota, Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, Matt Gaetz of Florida, and Pete Stauber of Minnesota. The group — led by Arizona U.S. Congressman Andy Biggs — also met with Customs and Border Protection officials and saw prototypes for President Donald Trump's proposed border wall.
While the delegation visited Yuma, mayor Douglas Nicholls declared a state of emergency over migrant families released in the city.
The false tuberculosis rumor not only traveled more than 2,000 miles to Pennsylvania, but also also spread to AM radio listeners here in Arizona.
960 AM (KKNT-AM) host Seth Leibsohn — who joined the congressional delegation for part of the trip — made the tuberculosis claim during a discussion on his show on April 16 with with Maricopa County Attorney Montgomery, who was guest hosting while Leibsohn called in from Yuma.
Leibsohn also said he heard the claim from Lines, who he said had "just got done with a briefing." The radio host conveyed a far more detailed version of the rumor than Joyce did, specifying the alleged day that the alleged tuberculosis-carrying migrants were arrested by border agents.
"Twelve people were apprehended yesterday with medically resistant tuberculosis," Leibsohn said to Montgomery. "Let me repeat that. Medically resistant tuberculosis."
Leibsohn said the alleged infected migrants were being held by the CDC.
"We don't know what to do with them, and the CDC doesn't know what to do with them," he said.
Montgomery responded, "That's one facet that most of these people don't think about, and that's that it is a public health component of this."
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Leibsohn interjected that he was "watching four people smuggle across the border right now," including one that was "probably 8 years old."
Montgomery repeated the claim of tuberculosis to Leibsohn's listeners two more times during the three hours he guest hosted the show. Asked whether he has any regrets spreading the claim of migrants in Yuma with drug-resistant tuberculosis, Montgomery disputed to New Times the number of migrants he incorrectly claimed had the disease.
"I did not say 12," Montgomery said in an email to New Times. "My recollection is a group (12?) where 2 were claimed to have medically resistant TB."