The Trump Administration's Border War Is Actually Catching Fewer Drug Traffickers

This is what happens when "zero tolerance" meets the limitations of government resources.


Border wall

President Donald Trump's administration may want to terrify us all with warnings about drug cartels invading the states from Mexico, but ironically enough, their attempt to fight it with an overwhelming crusade against any and all illegal immigration is backfiring.

USA Today reports that federal drug-trafficking prosecutions along the border are plunging, and dropped to their lowest point in two decades this summer. And the likely culprit is the federal government's obsession with prosecuting any immigrant caught in the country illegally:

The decision to prosecute everyone caught entering the USA illegally flooded federal courts with thousands of cases, most of them involving minor immigration violations that resulted in no jail time and a $10 fee. As prosecutors and border agents raced to bring those immigrants to court, the number of people they charged under drug-trafficking laws dropped by 30 percent along the border – and in some places far more steeply than that, a USA TODAY review of court dockets and Justice Department records found.

In June and July, federal prosecutors charged fewer people with drug-trafficking violations than in any month since at least 2001, when the United States began a border security buildup. The numbers rebounded in August but remained lower than the previous summer.

A helpful graph shows that federal drug prosecutions along the border states have been plunging through the length of Trump's administration. USA Today notes that as this "no tolerance" crackdown hit, prosecutors who had been handling drug-trafficking cases found themselves reassigned to handle all these misdemeanor border-crossing cases. Criminal cases doubled and even tripled in some places, but these were mainly minor arrests. Actual drug-trafficking cases declined significantly.

To be very, very clear: I'm not complaining about the drop in drug arrests. The federal drug war is harsh and ridiculous. USA Today notes that more of these drug-trafficking cases are being handled by the states instead—which often hand down lighter sentences—and suggests that this is a bad consequence. It is not.

Really, the point here is to call bullshit on the claim that this cruel treatment of immigrant families protects Americans. The redeployment of Justice Department resources away from felony offenses involving cartels to misdeamonor offenses committed by people seeking work or fleeing cartel violence reveals that claim to be hot garbage.

The outcome was entirely predictable entirely because we've actually seen it before. The exact same thing happened under the regime of disgraced Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and it didn't affect just drug-trafficking arrests. His obsession with hunting down illegal immigrants taxed county resources so much that they dropped the ball on dozens of violent crime investigations. Detectives were being deployed to tracking down illegal immigrants while reports of sexual assaults were not properly investigated. Two journalists won Pulitzer Prizes in 2009 for a series showing how Arpaio's immigration crackdown drained the county's resources while catching mostly low-level crooks. And for many of the department's immigration arrests, being in the country illegally was their only crime.

Sound familiar? Since Trump's a big fan of Arpaio, it's worth observing that the same stupid trade-offs are happening again. The administration's war on immigration is not a war on drug cartels, but on poor immigrant families.