The Ebola Crisis and the Effect on Travel From Western Africa

by Joseph McKeown

Liberian national, Thomas Eric Duncan, has become the first person to die in the US from the effects of the Ebola virus. Anti-immigration critics were using Mr. Duncan's immigration status (he was reportedly in the US on a visitor visa) to advocate for travel restrictions or bans for those from the West African nations hardest hit with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. Calling the late Mr. Duncan another "visa mistake," Jessica Vaughan of The Center for Immigration Studies estimated that there are about 13,000 people from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea with valid visas to travel to the US, and faulted the Obama administration on their refusal to "use immigration controls even to protect the homeland."  (Senator Ted Cruz suggested restricting or banning flights to West Africa and one US general expressed apocalyptic-type fears of mass immigration to the US border by infected Central Americans.)  In addition, a recent survey found that a majority of respondents wanted flights from the "Ebola" countries banned.

President Obama called the Ebola outbreak a matter of national security and said that the "ability of people who are infected to carry that [Ebola virus] across borders is something that we have to take extremely seriously." While the president did not discuss visa bans or restrictions, in response to the US outbreak and the death of Mr. Duncan, federal officials announced they will begin additional screenings at five US airports, including Kennedy International Airport here in New York City, for passengers from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. 

The Department of Homeland Security explained how such screenings would work for travelers as they exited their home country and subsequently attempted to enter the US. Travelers will be given information on Ebola and its symptoms before being questioned about their exposure to Ebola and having their temperature taken. If travelers have a fever or have been exposed to Ebola, they will be referred to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for additional evaluation. For the late Mr. Duncan, these temperature screenings would not have mattered in all likelihood, as he reportedly did not display symptoms until several days after he entered the US. 

The State Department indicated that while they ordered the departure of family members of Embassy staff in Monrovia and Freetown due to lack of routine health care services, their "Embassies remain open and will continue business as usual in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. They also said: "We remain deeply committed to supporting regional and international efforts to deliver health care as well as contain and control the transmission of the Ebola virus."

The US Embassy in Monrovia, Liberia has stated that visa applicants will be screened for symptoms of Ebola and any visitors exhibiting symptoms will be asked to leave and reschedule the interview. In general, the US Embassies in West Africa have posted information on the US government's fight against Ebola, including the "White House Fact Sheet" detailing the US government's four-point strategic response:

  • Controlling the epidemic at its source in West Africa;
  • Mitigating second-order impacts, including blunting the economic, social, and political tolls in the region;
  • Engaging and coordinating with a broader global audience; and
  • Fortifying global health security infrastructure in the region and beyond.

To meet these goals the government is using US military and broader uniformed services for command, logistics, training and engineering, and is providing new resources, such as health care and hospital staff, Ebola Treatment Units, protection kits, and home health care kits, in addition to the resources, staff, health specialists, and emergency supplies already provided.

As we reported, US Citizenship & Immigration Services still has certain immigration-relief measures for nationals of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone who are currently in the US.

The White House Fact Sheet notes: "Every outbreak of Ebola over the past 40 years has been contained, and we are confident that this one can—and will be—as well."