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Republican Midterm Message On “Border Security” is Heavy on Anti-Immigrant Politics, Devoid of Solutions

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Republicans are using their political ads to attempt to connect the issues of fentanyl to their overall nativist appeals despite lacking basic logic or facts.

Drug trafficking is a serious issue that requires decisive action and comprehensive solutions from our elected leaders. Unfortunately, too many Republican candidates are more interested in scoring political points than truly helping the American people who are suffering the consequences of our inability to deal with this reality. 

Republicans are spending millions of dollars on political ads intentionally misleading the public so that the fentanyl crisis is mainly seen through the lens of their nativist agenda. Many Republicans would like the public to believe the fiction that our fentanyl problem is the result of Democrats’ “open border” policies with drugs coming in alongside migrants. The facts on the ground and criminal organizations that seek profit no matter the cost tell a different story. Our borders are not open, nor is drug importation mainly because of migrants. Republicans, however, seem desperate to obscure this reality for their own cynical political purposes. 

For their part, Democrats cannot afford to ignore this xenophobic misinformation. Nor can Democrats ignore the nation’s fentanyl problems. If they are going to effectively respond to Republicans’ disingenuous narrative, Democrats must communicate a plan for real solutions to the nation’s fentanyl problems. We don’t pretend to have the answers to solve the issues of hard drugs, but we know that Republicans’ cynical political opportunism here is detrimental to both improving both our immigration system and reducing the problems of this dangerous drug. 

Our research shows the Republicans will continue to use this misleading and disingenuous attack throughout the midterms. Below we lay out the basic facts and logic aligned against this GOP message and the opportunity for Democrats. 

The Facts 

First, the Republican line of attack premised on the alleged Democrat support for “open border” policies is bunk. Our borders are not open, nor do any elected Democrats in Congress support such an idea. Certainly, the White House does not. 

While we do not support the Biden administration’s deterrence focus at the border, the right-wing framing of Biden’s supposed “open borders” is filled with falsehoods. The reality under Biden is that almost 80% of those encountered by authorities at the border have been immediately removed, put in detention, or in the case of children, put in a government-run or contracted shelter. For the 20% “released,” almost all show up in court. And the immediate expulsion of many migrants means that the overall data of total encounters includes many individuals who are multi-counted, as CBP data show. Meanwhile, despite the apocalyptic rhetoric from many Republicans, immigration is, in fact, way down, with net immigration to the U.S. just 25% of what it was five years ago. Regardless, there is not a correlation between the number of new migrants seeking refuge at our borders and the amount of fentanyl and other drugs coming into the country. 

In a recent op-ed in The Hill, “Reducing illegal drugs in the US requires the tools of trade, not ‘war’”, Kathleen Frydl, an award-winning political historian and author of “The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973,” wrote: 

“We hear a lot about fentanyl crossing the southern border with Mexico, mostly from Republicans who claim this is the result of “open borders.”

Often these remarks make mention of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers also crossing the border, implying that drug trafficking organizations recruit them to smuggle this dangerous drug into the United States. While it is true that the majority of fentanyl bound for the United States comes from Mexico, the organizations that traffic in it do not risk their product on desperate people facing steep odds and a dangerous crossing.

Instead, fentanyl comes to the United States via ostensibly legal crossings at designated ports of entry. It arrives by car, truck, and train, on transport missions methodically arranged to arouse the least possible suspicion. Occasionally U.S. border officials seize packages of fentanyl, and lots of seizures provide indirect evidence of a lot of supply that makes the crossing undetected.

Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, Senior Policy Counsel at the American Immigration Council, has also raised the inconsistencies of this Republican political attack. He recently pointed out that migrants bringing in drugs was notability absent from the Drug Enforcement Administration assessment of how fentanyl and other hard drugs are being smuggled into California from Mexico. Going beyond the splashy headlines Republicans are quick to amplify, Reichlin-Melnick found that in one Customs and Border Protection report about fentanyl seizures at the border, of the 796 pounds captured, all but one pound was captured at an official port of entry or vehicle checkpoint. So, not primarily or even remotely is drug importation a problem of migrants seeking asylum or attempting to enter the U.S. between ports of entry. 

Significantly, Republicans voted against money used to seize drugs at the border. Most House and Senate Republicans voted against the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the $1.2 trillion bipartisan bill that invests in technologies and infrastructure – including “$430 million to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for the construction and modernization of land ports of entry and equipment and fixtures for operations,” according to the National Immigration Forum. This money, which most Republicans opposed, can help purchase new screening technology, which as the Washington Post reported is showing results in terms of Fentanyl seizures by analyzing the contents of trucks. However, only 5% of trucks entering the U.S. are being screened with the new scanner technology.

As Senator Angus King (I-ME) asked in a recent Armed Services Committee hearing, “What’s the problem? It seems to me that’s a very solvable problem. It’s just math.” The Independent Senator, who caucuses with Democrats, called for additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance resources deployed in Latin America to help identify and interdict fentanyl importation.

The Republican Political Message

In spite of the facts, many Republicans have been building the narrative that fentanyl overdoses, and the tragedy around them, is the fault of the alleged “open borders” policies related to immigration and their favorite talking points about the “Biden Border Crisis.” They have used social media, TV appearances, and paid ads to muddle the issues of the international drug trade with issues related to migrants seeking safety at the border. Often Republicans remove all context and mix fears around hard drugs, crime and public safety with their nativist fear-mongering about new migrants. Republicans intentionally cultivate conflation between the issues, which leaves little room for the viewer to draw a different or more accurate conclusion about what steps need to be taken to address fentanyl.  

Republicans also use this misleading attack in an attempt to connect the remote issue of asylum seekers at the border to the everyday concerns of voters. Republican attacks seek to construct a non-white foreign ‘other’ as a boogyman waiting on every street corner. This is a fiction meant to trigger, often unconscious, racial anxieties and fears in voters. Though their strategy may be clear to some, without a counter-narrative based on facts and values, the Republican lies and misdirection strategy can be quite convincing. 

Here are three recent examples of Republican ads that employ this line of attack: 

  • In the Republican primary to fill the Ohio Senate seat of retiring Senator Rob Portman, Protect Ohio Values PAC ran a TV ad focusing solely on this message. The PAC is funded by far-right billionaire Peter Thiel who is supporting his former employee J.D. Vance a Republican supported by Fox TV personality Tucker Carlson, among others on the extreme right. The PAC reportedly spent $800,000 on the spot with a voice-over that begins “for J.D. Vance, border security is personal, a childhood torn apart by addiction. Now J.D. Vance is on a mission to stop death from streaming across our border.”  Vance became famous for his book “Hillbilly Elegy” where he discussed his mother’s addiction to opioids. The ad offers not a solution to that problem but instead claims, “Vance will finish the wall, end welfare for illegals, and eliminate all federal tax dollars for sanctuary cities.” This reference to the border wall and a list of dog-whistles has nothing to do with stopping drug trafficking, nor do they anything but signal that immigrants and immigration are closely linked to opioids to justify his nativism and populist appeal to halt immigration.
  • Arizona Senate Republican primary candidate Jim Lamon has had several ads employing this misleading line of attack. Lamon’s most recent ad begins with footage from 2018 of migrants fleeing teargas as a numerical ticker rapidly ticks up. The ominous voiceover asks: “How many illegal immigrants per year are enough? How many overdose deaths are enough? How many dangerous criminals released into America is enough?” The rapid succession of these three rhetorical questions creates the false premise that they are all a part of the same problem. The ad ends with Lamon’s general promise to “secure the border” if he is elected. 
  • After winning the GOP primary election, Texas Governor Greg Abbott dropped an ad engaging in the fentanyl-border dog-whistle. The ad begins with a clip of his Democratic opponent, Beto O’Rourke, from an interview during his Presidential bid in 2020, saying he would knock down the wall. The O’Rourke clip is followed by several news headlines that warn about fentanyl, implying that one has to do with the other, despite the repeatedly demonstrated ineffectiveness of the wall as a deterrent to migration, let alone the unrelated issue of illicit drug importation. The ad ends with photos from Abbott’s recent border political stunts and promises to finish the wall. Again, not a policy idea that will do anything to address the issues with fentanyl. 

These three are a small sample of an attack that is increasingly becoming a central part of Republicans’ midterm appeal. At our online database, we have compiled nearly 100 unique examples of Republican campaign ads that employ this misleading, xenophobic tactic in just the first three months of the year. We fully expect this number to grow as Republican ads will in all likelihood continue to employ this disingenuous attack. 

Whether or not voters buy this prepacked lie may largely depend if they understand Republicans’ motivation behind it and whether or not they hear a sensible alternative solution for addressing their concerns over fentanyl and the dramatic increase in overdoses.  

Democrats Should Draw a Contrast and Lean-In with Solutions

This misdirection play by Republicans is something Democrats should lean into because it exposes the hollowness of the Republican campaign strategy.  It is long on declaring the problem, long on pointing towards immigrants – and alleged Democratic policies related to immigrants – but absolutely devoid of meaningful solutions.

It is on the solutions playing field that Democrats may find some opportunities to turn the Republican focus on fentanyl and opioid overdoses against them and lead the country towards solutions that will actually reduce importations of the deadly drug to American communities.

If Republicans were actually concerned about Americans dying from drugs, they would go where the drugs are, not where they aren’t. 99% of all drugs are brought in through ports of entry by cars, trucks, boats, planes. Rather than meet that real problem head-on and increase inspections of every cargo shipment, the GOP prefers to focus on where illegal drug flow is low, but the political benefit is high: focusing on men, women, and children fleeing violence and seeking safe haven at our borders.

The GOP obsession with focussing on the wrong problem and the wrong solutions is costing thousands of lives, contributing to the flood of drugs, the continued growth of a flourishing, sophisticated network of cartels, but there is clearly a better answer: go where the drugs are, not where they aren’t.

The nativist, xenophobic, and coded messages of Republicans can be potent if left unchallenged, but because the reality of opioid and drug importation is so divorced from Republican rhetoric and “policy” proposals, it opens the door to forceful Democratic response.