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Debunking the GOP’s Fentanyl Narrative – 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 Republican politicians have relentlessly conflated the issues in cynical political attacks. That has been their primary focus on this issue. The perpetuation of this false narrative forstalls the discussion of critical congressional action to mitigate the challenges of synthetic fentanyl and precludes a conversation about solutions. Here is a short resource guide to bust the GOP’s fentanyl myth.    

Fentanyl is NOT an immigration issue. Fentanyl is trafficked through ports of entry (POEs) by US citizens.

  • Fentanyl comes in through ports of entry, not unauthorized migrants: 90% of all drugs are brought in through ports of entry (POE)  in commercial vehicles 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 Agency says that “the most common method” of smuggling fentanyl into the country is “through U.S. [ports of entry] in passenger vehicles with concealed compartments or commingled with legitimate goods on tractor-trailers.”
  • Fentanyl is largely trafficked by U.S. citizens: The evidence points to the fact that almost all 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. 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.  

Republicans prefer slogans over solutions, a border wall won’t help, but screening technology at POE could help with interdiction.

  • 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.”
  • Republicans who are politicizing the issue have largely failed to be a part of the solution – including voting against funding for ports of entry modernization and inspection. Most Republicans voted against the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which 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.

“Invasion,” “open borders,” and other misleading fentanyl narratives

  • Fentanyl overdose deaths are not a justification for the white nationalist “invasion” conspiracy that puts targets on the backs of migrant communities. This language of “invasion” is inexorably tied to the deadly Great Replacement Theory and has been the inspiration for multiple domestic terrorists. Several Republicans have pointed to fentanyl overdose deaths as justification for asserting migrants constitute a literal invasion.
  • Seizures of fentanyl at POE 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 seized 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.” 
  • 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.”
  • “Rainbow” fentanyl reflects a shift in the market. Republicans asserted without evidence that fentanyl pills pressed into a variety of colors were targeting children as a means to sharpen their cynical political attack. While there are several plausible reasons for the shift in color of the synthetic fentanyl sold on the street, more than anything else, it marks a shift from imitation prescription pain pills to consumers intentionally seeking the more potent fentanyl. As Sam Quinones explains  that this shift is less about targeting kids but an ominous sign “for what they indicate about the underground pill producers in Mexico, as well as the spread of fentanyl addiction across the U.S. . . . The candy-colored pills are just the final sign that, unlike counterfeiters everywhere, Mexican pill makers have given up any pretense of imitating the real thing — because they can.”
  • There is no correlation between the number of migrants seeking safety at the border and fentanyl seizures. One disingenuous line of political attack from Republicans is 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. 
  • 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.”