When politicians and pundits on the right call for the U.S.-Mexico border to be secured, they often point to rising fentanyl overdose deaths among Americans as justification.
"The cartels are exploiting President Biden's open borders," charged Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas), sharing an article about fentanyl at the southern border. "Open borders…are slowly but surely poisoning our country," said former Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R–Ga.) of parents who "now must worry" about Halloween candy laced with fentanyl. "There have been over 100k fentanyl deaths" since Joe Biden became president, tweeted the conservative Heritage Foundation. "OPEN BORDERS ARE INHUMANE."
That line of reasoning has also caught on with the general public, judging by an August NPR/Ipsos poll. When presented with the statement, "Most of the fentanyl entering the U.S. is smuggled in by unauthorized migrants crossing the border illegally," 39 percent of respondents said it was true. Twenty-three percent of Democrats called it true, while 60 percent of Republicans did.
Despite the idea's sticking power in certain circles, it's inaccurate to say that undocumented immigrants crossing an open border are chiefly responsible for fentanyl arriving at the country's doors. In reality, U.S. citizens carrying the drug through legal ports of entry are primarily to blame.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has reported an upward trend in fentanyl seizures over the past few years. From 2,800 pounds seized in FY 2019, CBP seized 11,200 pounds of fentanyl in FY 2021 and 12,900 pounds in FY 2022 through the end of August.
Seizures conducted by two distinct bodies within CBP combine to yield those numbers. The first, the Office of Field Operations (OFO), enforces immigration and customs laws at ports of entry—points where someone may lawfully enter the United States. The second is U.S. Border Patrol, which intercepts undocumented individuals and illegally imported goods between those ports of entry.
The vast majority of fentanyl seized in recent years has been obtained by the OFO, not Border Patrol. The drug was mainly seized from smugglers at legal ports of entry, not illegal border crossings. OFO seizures amounted to 2,600 pounds in 2019 (93 percent of the total fentanyl seized by CBP), 4,000 pounds in 2020 (83 percent), 10,200 pounds in 2021 (91 percent), and 10,900 pounds so far in 2022 (84 percent). The Drug Enforcement Agency confirms the port trend, saying that "the most common method employed [by Mexican cartels] involves smuggling illicit drugs through U.S. [ports of entry] in passenger vehicles with concealed compartments or commingled with legitimate goods on tractor-trailers."
Per David Bier, associate director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute, some people might wrongly think that "less fentanyl is interdicted between ports of entry because it is more difficult to detect there." But Bier notes that it's far easier for smugglers to conceal drugs while entering the U.S. at legal crossings (i.e., in vehicles) than it is for someone to cross the border undetected. "We've seen some instances perhaps of migrants and drugs as a mixed event," said Brian Sulc, executive director of the Department of Homeland Security's Transnational Organized Crime Mission Center, in congressional testimony in May. "But they're still rare."
The fact that so much fentanyl smuggling takes place at legal border crossings helps explain why U.S. citizens are the main traffickers there. "In order to smuggle fentanyl through a port of entry, cartels hire primarily U.S. citizens, who are the least likely to attract heightened scrutiny when crossing into the United States," writes Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council. Reichlin-Melnick analyzed every CBP press release and official Twitter post mentioning fentanyl seizures from December 2021 to May 2022. Only two involved people crossing between ports of entry, and of the 42 incidents where CBP mentioned a smuggler's nationality, 33—or 79 percent—involved U.S. citizens.
Data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) highlight a similar national trend. From FY 2015 through FY 2021, the USSC reported 4,459 people charged with federal fentanyl trafficking; just 659 of them were noncitizens. Most Border Patrol drug seizures at checkpoints from FY 2016 through FY 2020 involved only U.S. citizens carrying marijuana, according to a Government Accountability Office report published in June. Of all drug seizures during that period, 91 percent involved just U.S. citizens, while 4 percent involved "potentially removable people."
In reality, Border Patrol apprehends an exceedingly small number of people carrying fentanyl. "Just 279 of 1.8 million arrests by Border Patrol of illegal border crossers resulted in a fentanyl seizure—too small of a percentage (0.02 percent) to appear on a graph," writes Bier, "and many of these seizures occurred at vehicle checkpoints of legal travelers in the interior of the United States." Though it's obviously difficult to predict how much fentanyl could be carried by migrants who go unapprehended by Border Patrol, the tiny share of apprehended migrants who are found carrying fentanyl suggests that amount could be quite small.
Discussions of border enforcement often mash together fentanyl overdose deaths and unauthorized border crossings with little eye to how they actually relate. That's bad enough, since it often leads politicians to condemn migrants for an issue they have little to do with. Even worse is the fact that scapegoating foreigners only helps to obscure the factors that are truly driving overdose deaths in the United States.