One line of political rhetoric that’s proved particularly popular as the midterm elections approach goes something like this: President Biden’s open-border policy has allowed dangerous drugs like fentanyl to flood into the country, imperiling our children.
The evidence for this is often patchy, with Republicans — generally the people articulating this line of argument — often pointing to things like drug seizures as evidence. That those are seizures, drugs generally stopped at the border, doesn’t seem to derail the argument. After all, the same rhetorical trick is applied to immigrants themselves; that most of those stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border were prevented from entering doesn’t exclude them from being added to what’s meant to be a scary-sounding total number of people seeking to come to the United States.
But there’s another point that’s worth drawing out here. Seizures are a dubious metric not only because those drugs will not be sold in the United States but also because of where and how those seizures occur: usually at border checkpoints and often in the possession of U.S. citizens.
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Customs and Border Protection (CBP) provides detailed data on drug seizures. Those include seizures throughout the country, not just at the U.S.-Mexico border, and seizures undertaken by the CBP’s Air and Marine Operations (AMO) unit. But it breaks down the data usefully, allowing us to see the quantities of drugs seized by agents and where those seizures occur.
It is true that the amount of fentanyl being seized by CBP has increased in the past few years. In the third quarter of calendar year 2019, some 668 pounds of fentanyl were seized by the Border Patrol, the Office of Field Operations (which manages border checkpoints, including at airports) and AMO. In the third quarter of 2020, that surged to 2,357 pounds. In the third quarter of 2021, the figure was 2,921 pounds. Full data for the third quarter of 2022 isn’t available yet, but the total in the first two months was over 4,400 pounds.
Most of that, in each quarter, was seized at the U.S.-Mexico border. In the period from the fourth quarter of 2018 to the end of August 2022, an average of 87 percent of seized fentanyl was stopped at the southern border. But most of that was stopped by OFO at border crossing points.
If we look at this not as raw totals but, instead, as percentages, the scale of stops that occur at border crossings becomes obvious. On average, just under three-quarters of all fentanyl seized by CBP is seized at U.S.-Mexico border crossings.
Only about 11 percent of fentanyl is seized by the Border Patrol between checkpoints — the sort of scenario that often gets amplified as a point of political pressure.
It is necessarily true that some percentage of drugs is not seized at the border. After all, there are illegal drugs in the United States that originate elsewhere. But it’s not fair to simply assume that enormous quantities of drugs simply aren’t detected.
We recently considered this question in terms of migrants seeking entry to the country. Yes, some portion of migrants enter the country illegally and are not detected by the Border Patrol. But the percentage of migrants who do so has declined in recent decades thanks to both expansions of barriers on the border undertaken in the administrations of George W. Bush and Donald Trump and because of improved surveillance tools deployed at the border.
It’s also because many migrants want to be stopped by government officials, in order to make an asylum claim that might allow them to remain in the country legally for some time. In other words, in many cases it’s simply easier to use the border checkpoints in the first place. Part of the goal of installing barriers on the border is to increase the likelihood that people will use manned crossing points.
Then there is simple physics. Fentanyl isn’t like marijuana, which is voluminous and hard to hide in a car or on your person. If you want to smuggle a large volume of pot, you aren’t going to throw it in the trunk of your car. But even a relatively large volume of fentanyl can be tucked easily out of sight. Multiple government officials have testified in recent years that most drugs enter at border crossings.
So who is being stopped with drugs at the border? Well, consider what’s occurring at those checkpoints. Thousands of vehicles and people are lined up, waiting to come in. At the San Ysidro crossing point, authorities have about 40 seconds to identify signs of smuggling, USA Today reported several years ago. The less suspicion a smuggler can draw, then, the better. And who better to reduce suspicion than a U.S. citizen?
CBP doesn’t have compiled data on the percentage of seizures that are U.S. citizens. But a perusal of the organization’s website turns up a large number of news releases in which fentanyl seizures involve Americans. In March, for example, CBP published a notice in which it identified four people who had been detained for attempting to smuggle fentanyl. All were identified as citizens.
Again, the idea of smuggling fentanyl into the country is to get the drugs in quickly without detection. Paying a citizen to drive them in makes more sense in that regard than having a noncitizen lug them across the Rio Grande.
But reality isn’t always politically useful. Using the specter of fentanyl (the dangers of which are also overhyped) as a way to hand-wring about immigration is obviously useful.
We can see that reflected in media coverage. As noted above, fentanyl seizures began to surge in 2020. Fox News, though, only began ginning up its coverage once Biden was inaugurated. Over the past five months, the network has mentioned fentanyl far more regularly — and often in the context of the border.
For the most part, we can assume, the discussion doesn’t center on how much of the drug is taken from U.S. citizens at border checkpoints.