Invasive Procedure

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Fred Gossien, a resident of Terlingua near Big Bend National Park, is seldom flustered by immigration checkpoints and random traffic stops by the U.S. Border Patrol. They’re just part of life on the border. But it got a little humiliating recently when—at a checkpoint south of Alpine—the 63-year-old set off the radiation detectors.

The Department of Homeland Security has installed radiation scanners at checkpoints to detect the makings of dirty bombs and other weapons. The devices also detect radiation related to medical treatment.

Gossien is being treated for prostate cancer. Doctors have inserted radioactive pellets near his tumor to fight the cancerous cells.

Early Saturday morning on Oct. 31, Border Patrol agents detained the cancer patient for more than an hour while his partner Mindy waited in a separate room. As his body was scanned by two agents with a handheld radiation monitor, Gossien was asked a series of questions about where he lived and where he was headed.

He told the agents he’d had radioactive treatments for his cancer. The agents wanted to call Gossien’s doctor in Washington state, where many veterans receive cancer treatments, to verify his story. “I told them, ‘Are you crazy? It’s Saturday, and he’s at a VA hospital in Seattle,’” Gossien recounts in an e-mail. The agents took his Veterans Administration card to be photocopied. They said they would have to identify “the radioactive isotopes and call Washington, D.C.,” Gossien says. Meanwhile, they kept waving detection machines over his body. “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,” he says.

After an hour, agents got the call from Washington. The radiation was indeed a medical isotope, and Gossien was not a terrorist.

Physically and mentally exhausted from his cancer treatments, Gossien says he felt humiliated as he was poked and prodded for more than an hour.

Since then, he has channeled his embarrassment into humor. He jokes that he has been officially indoctrinated into the Big Bend Old Fogies Suspected Terrorist Cell. Gossien says he knows of at least two other men in the area undergoing similar treatments who have received scrutiny from the Border Patrol.

“Most of us are somewhat elderly … and have had some type of radiation treatment for some form of cancer,” he says. “In other words, we are radioactive. Some of us are virtually on our deathbeds, while others, myself included, are hoping for a complete cure.”

Bill Brooks, a public affairs officer for Customs and Border Protection, says 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.” Extra scrutiny because of medical radiation treatments is not out of the ordinary, he says. “I don’t want to say it happens often, but it’s not unusual.”

Next time, Gossien says, he’d rather be arrested than undergo another search. “If I am again subjected to roadside humiliation, I will not cooperate. Period. Should that noncooperation result in arrest or detention, so be it.”

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. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.