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Debunking Nativist Narratives on Fentanyl and Crime – A Short Resource Guide

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The prevalence of synthetic fentanyl is a serious and urgent issue driving the grim record-breaking number of overdose deaths in America. It is a complex, multifaceted problem encompassing many issue areas, including trade, international crime syndicates, drug industry complicity, addiction, health care, and economic distress. But fentanyl is not an immigration issue. Unfortunately, many politicians, pundits, and misleading headlines have cynically and relentlessly conflated the issues. The perpetuation of this pernicious false narrative forstalls the discussion of the critical congressional action urgently needed to mitigate the challenges of synthetic fentanyl and precludes a conversation about solutions. Often entangled in this nativist narrative is another long-debunked pernicious myth about a correlation between immigrants and crime. While these nativist narratives pretend to be concerned about public safety, they do the opposite, putting a target on the back of immigrant communities, providing fuel for organized crime, and prolonging the deadly fentanyl crisis by failing to address the realities of the issues at hand.

Below is a short resource guide to provide the facts and bust the myths about sources of fentanyl and crime:    

  • Fentanyl comes in through ports of entry, not unauthorized migrants: Law enforcement agencies and the facts on the ground agree that most or all the illicit drugs smuggled into the country enter alongside commercial traffic at legal points of entry. 90% of all fentanyl seized at the border is at ports of entry in commercial trucks and passenger cars, not in the backpacks of migrants crossing on foot and looking to present themselves to Border Patrol agents in order to apply for asylum. The Drug Enforcement Administration has repeatedly underscored this fact.  And James Mandryck, Deputy Assistant Commissioner, Office of Intelligence, Customs and Border Protection, recently also confirmed this fact to Congress
  • Fentanyl is primarily trafficked by U.S. citizens: The evidence points to the fact that most of the fentanyl smuggled into the U.S. is done by U.S. citizens and paid for by U.S. citizens who are the ultimate consumers. This is a point CBP’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner also confirmed in a recent Congressional hearing. The organizations that traffic in hard drugs do not risk their product on desperate people facing steep odds and a dangerous crossing who are seeking out U.S. authorities to whom they can surrender themselves while asking for asylum. 
  • Seizures of fentanyl at ports of entry are not evidence of “open borders.” Fentanyl seizures have increased under the Biden administration, but this increased interdiction is not, as Republicans absurdly suggest, evidence of “open borders” but the exact opposite. As CNN’s political fact checker Daniel Dale noted: “Republicans also keep citing the large quantities of fentanyl being at the border, but fentanyl being seized is more proof the border is not actually open … The image Republicans are trying to create is a migrant sneaking through the desert with a sack of drugs, that happens in some tiny percentage of cases, but it is certainly not the predominant story.”
  • “Ending the opioid crisis does not start, and it won’t end at the border,” Kemp Chester, Senior Advisor to the Director of National Drug Control Policy, recently said in testimony before  Congress. The nation’s top law enforcement officers are clear, tackling the fentanyl crisis means tackling sophisticated organized crime operations operating across 100 counties, using the tools of international trade to deal with precursor chemical shipments and cracking down on money laundering operations. Enforcement that must be aided by treatment and prevention efforts in the U.S. Notably, none of the above has anything to do with immigration policy.
  • The tools of trade are needed to disrupt the supply chain. Standard law enforcement efforts alone will not solve the fentanyl crisis. This is particularly true of a myopic focus on interdiction at ports of entry which can encourage suppliers to increase the supply and potency of the drugs. As experts in the field have argued, trade penalties or sanction regimes could be a much more effective tool to combat the fentanyl supply chain. An approach the Biden administration has begun to adopt, but where there is still significant room for more focus. 
  • The problem of fentanyl overdoses has been building for years. The exponential spike in fentanyl-related overdose deaths began in 2015, and continued to its tragic exponential growth throughout the Trump administration.  As the Washington Post reported, since the early 2000’s there have been “three waves of the opioid epidemic — fueled first by prescription pain pills, then by heroin and now by illicit fentanyl”.  They write: “​​Prescription pain pills were the main cause of overdose deaths through 2011. Soon, drug users turned to heroin, which set the stage for fentanyl.” This history, while deeply concerning and tragic, is yet another proof point that the fentanyl crisis and migration patterns are in no way correlated. 
  • The massive law enforcement operations underway underscore the issue is not one of immigration enforcement. In early spring of 2023, DHS launched operations “Blue Lotus” and  “the Four Horseman,” which resulted in the seizure of nearly 10,000 pounds of fentanyl and nearly 300 arrests targeting fentanyl traffickers and distributors. And in the summer of 2023, DHS announced an ongoing follow-up, joint law enforcement operations  “Artemis” and “Rolling Wave” are targeting the supply chain of precursor chemicals.
  • There is no correlation between the number of migrants seeking safety at the border and fentanyl seizures. One disingenuous part of this nativist narrative argues that an increase in migrants at the southern border diverts resources and thereby allows fentanyl to be smuggled without detection. However,  the facts do not support this line of argument. Data shows there is no decrease in the amount of fentanyl seized compared to increases in migrant encounters, as Republicans suggest. This makes sense as fentanyl is largely smuggled alongside commercial traffic at POEs, which clearly is not affected by the levels of asylum seekers. 
  • When considering the interdiction of fentanyl at the border, the wall doesn’t work.  A deep-dive series from the Washington Post titled “CARTEL Rx Fentanyl’s Deadly Surge” found:  “The Department of Homeland Security, whose agencies are responsible for detecting illegal drugs at the nation’s borders, failed to ramp up scanning and inspection technology at official crossings, instead channeling $11 billion toward the construction of a border wall that does little to stop fentanyl traffickers.” And they laid out the obvious flaw in the strategy, writing: “President Donald Trump told Americans that a wall along the border with Mexico would stop the torrent of drugs. But nearly all the fentanyl entering the United States passes through official border crossings — not through the deserts and mountains.”
  • Nonintrusive screening technology at ports of entry dramatically improves interdiction rates. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, (which most Republicans voted against) included $430 million to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for the construction and modernization of land ports of entry. Improvements like “multi-energy portal” screening technology would increase the ability for illicit narcotics seizures at the nation’s borders without significantly impacting the massive amount of legal trade that runs through those same POEs. Without the upgraded infrastructure, fewer than five percent of trucks are being screened with the new technology. In July 2023, James Mandryck, Deputy Assistant Commissioner, Office of Intelligence, Customs and Border Protection, testified to Congress that the percentage increase in total inspections would likely correspond to an increase in their interdiction rate.  And as Dr. Rahul Gupta, Director of the Office of the National Drug Policy, was asked in February 2023, how to stop fentanyl, he noted: “As the majority of the drugs come through the port of entry, there is technology that can magnify; resources, infrastructure that help us detect as much fentanyl as we can.” While interdiction at the border is only one piece of the puzzle, it is a  question about technology and infrastructure at ports of entry along the border, not one of immigration enforcement. 
  • Amplifying white nationalist conspiracies is a real threat, not the migrants seeking safety. Unfortunately, far too many politicians and pundits have pointed to fentanyl overdose deaths as justification for asserting migrants constitute a literal military “invasion” of the United States. This language of “invasion” is inexorably tied to the deadly great replacement conspiracy theory and has been the inspiration for multiple domestic terrorists. America’s Voice has identified over 81 times members of 118th Congress in their official capacity have echoed the same racist “invasion” conspiracy theory as several deadly domestic terrorists. DHS has repeatedly warned that the greatest terror threat facing the Homeland comes from the domestic terrorist radicalized by the same ideas now being espoused by Republican Members of Congress. Instead of addressing this serious threat to public safety, they would rather perpetuate the widely debunked and pernicious myth that immigrants are correlated with fentanyl and crime.  
  • Immigrants are not correlated with crime. In study after study, and study, and study, and more study the facts are clear, immigrants have lower crime rates than the rest of the population. In reality, overwhelming research shows that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. Illustrating this point on the floor of Congress in July 2023, Rep. Dan Goldman (D-NY) noted that the shelters housing migrants and asylum seekers that “in the past year there has not been a single violent incident in any of the nearly 200 shelters housing newly arrived migrants in New York City. Not one. You tell me another community of 80,000 people where there is not a single violent incident.”  
  • Intercepting people on the terrorist watch list is not new, nor indicative of a threat it may imply. Yes, as anti-immigrant Members of Congress and media figures will often shout breathlessly, there are individuals on the terrorist watch list who are intercepted at the U.S. borders, but there are some key facts to keep in mind. First and foremost, the numbers that are given are people who have been intercepted by CBP, a fact that is more indicative of the department doing its job. Assertions to the contrary are purely speculative fearmongering premised on the alleged incompetence of the CBP. The most individuals intercepted by CBP on the list was in FY 2019 under the Trump administration, and as has been the case since FY2017, most of those identified are along the northern, not the southern border. And while there has been an uptick of individuals apprehended in between ports of entry, “It’s likely that 95%+ people who are flagged on the watchlist are ex-rebels from Colombia, not international terrorists,” wrote  American Immigration Council’s Aaron Reichlin Melnick.
  • Harsh immigration deterrence policies not only fail from a flawed premise but gift organized crime an opportunity to prey on vulnerable populations. While proponents of harsh deterrence policies claim they do so in the name of combating crime, harsh deterrence policies end up fueling organized crime by making desperate migrants vulnerable to extortion and kidnappings. Moreover, it has repeatedly been shown, the U.S. cannot inflict the level of cruelty to deter migrants from fleeing for their lives. 
  • Weak gun regulation in the U.S. allows for guns to flow south, fueling violent transnational crime.  Research suggests that somewhere between 70 to 90 percent of the Mexican drug cartels’ guns are trafficked from the U.S. “Money and guns from the United States drive the deadly violence and drug trafficking in Mexico,” Jonathan Lowy and Luis Moreno recently wrote in the Washington Post. “The money the cartels use to pay for the guns comes largely from their sale of illegal drugs to buyers in the United States.” Furthermore, this widespread regional violence is one factor driving forced migration.  
  • Fox News helped amply the false GOP political attack line on fentanyl ahead of ‘22 midterm election. America’s Voice ad tracking project identified over 600 pieces of paid communications from Republican campaigns that falsely equated the issue of illicit drugs and immigration in the ‘22 midterm election.  And Fox News helped push this disinformation heavily in the lead-up to the last election. As Phillip Bump wrote for the Washington Post: “In the months before the midterm elections, for example, Fox News’s coverage of fentanyl increased dramatically. . .  Fox News commentators sought to tie fentanyl deaths to Biden’s border policies . . . Fox News mentioned fentanyl nearly twice as often in September and October as it did in December and January. Most of the time, those mentions were in the context of the border.” 
  • Going to war with Mexico isn’t the answer to the fentanyl crisis. The idea that the U.S. would send troops to invade and bomb areas in Mexico, is likely viewed properly for the absurdity that is by those not closely following this story. But many Republican politicians have suggested we “bomb” parts of Mexico or send in a detachment of the U.S. military to deal with the fentanyl crisis. No one argues that cartels based in Mexico do not pose a threat, but adopting the position of going to war with one of the nation’s leading allies is reckless and shockingly dangerous.  
  • Chinese nationals fleeing the repressive regime are not correlated with the fentanyl crisis. It should be abundantly clear from the bullet points above that no correlation exists between migrants seeking safety in the U.S. and the fentanyl crisis. Unfortunately, because China’s role in the supply chain of fentanyl is beyond dispute, nativists have tried to conflate the two issues. It is important to remember that there is no correlation.