Immigration Checkpoints Put Cancer Patients to the Test

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The Department of Homeland Security has been rolling out its radiation scanning technology on the northern and southern borders for the past several years. The scanners are meant to pick up on any radioactive material being smuggled through an immigration checkpoint. Apparently, they are very very sensitive.Just ask Fred Gossien who lives in Terlingua near Big Bend National Park. Mr. Gossien, 63, is being treated for prostate cancer. Every few months he goes to the VA hospital for blood tests. Doctors have also inserted radioactive pellets near the tumor to fight the cancerous cells. On October 31, Border Patrol agents detained Gossien at an immigration checkpoint south of Alpine for more than an hour. Gossien was told to pull into a secondary inspection lane. He was then taken out of the car and his body scanned with a radiation monitor as he was asked a series of questions.Here’s Gossien’s account:

During the first couple of minutes of the radioactivity checking, I think one of the agents actually asked if I had had related medical treatment, but by that time I was a bit floored by what was happening and can’t say for sure.  It was nevertheless soon established that I had ‘seed’ implants on June 23, 2009.  In the ensuing 5-10 minutes one agent said something about calling my doctor, to which I replied something like “It’s Saturday morning and my doctor is at the VA hospital in Seattle…”  Kind of like Are you nuts?  Anyway, to this I produced a card from the Radiation Therapy Clinic of the VA Puget Sound Health Care System, Seattle, where all the VA seed implants are done for people in the Western half of the country (I think).  Someone took the card inside and made a copy of it.  That is about the time “protocol” came into the conversation.  I was told they “had to call Washington, D.C.” then they had to use the second instrument which, as explained, recorded some type of radioactivity identification information which then had to be sent to their “scientist” who examined the info and responded that it was indeed a medical isotope and that I was probably not a terrorist.  Of course, they botched the first set of readings so it had to be rerecorded and, I should note, each of these functions took 5-15 minutes.  Finally after something over an hour they told us we could go.”

Gossien says he felt humiliated:

During and shortly after my indoctrination I kept telling myself the agents involved were just doing their jobs.  But something kept nagging at my subconscious and after a few days I finally figured out what it was – humiliation.  I realized I felt less like a lab rat and more like the star attraction of a carnival freak show, with an audience of BP agents gawking both at me and at their little Geiger-gadgets.”

Since then, however, Gossien has channeled his embarrassment into humor. He jokes that he has been officially indoctrinated into the Big Bend Old Fogies Suspected Terrorist Cell. “Most of us are somewhat elderly…and have had some type of radiation treatment for some form of cancer,” he writes in an email. “In other words, we are radioactive. Some of us are virtually on our deathbeds while others, myself included, are hoping for a complete cure.”He notes that the radiation treatments, while extremely draining, are working and he is feeling stronger. If he had been subjected to the search in July or August, he says “It would have totally wiped me out.”Gossien said he knows of at least three other men who also have been detained and searched because of their radiation treatments.Bill Brooks, public affairs officer for Customs and Border Protection in the Marfa sector, says that normally the inspection for someone receiving radiation treatments shouldn’t take longer than 15 to 20 minutes.”We have equipment to analyze the isotope and if we can’t identify it, we have to send it to Washington D.C.” he says.Brooks says that an inspection “will get everyone’s attention, but we try to make that individual comfortable and we certainly don’t want them to be humiliated.”

He says people being sent for secondary inspection because of medical radiation treatments is not out of the ordinary. “I don’t want to say it happens often, but it’s not unusual.”

Gossien says he won’t allow himself to be searched again. “If I am again subjected to roadside humiliation, I will not cooperate. Period. Should that non-cooperation result in arrest or detention, so be it. That would make great newspaper headlines: ‘West Texas Border Patrol Target Cancer Victims.’”

 

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.