Last night, as President Joe Biden gave his State of the Union address, he touched on the growing number of overdose deaths in the U.S. that involve fentanyl. "Fentanyl is killing more than 70,000 Americans a year," said Biden. House Republicans began to yell at the president, saying, "It's your fault." Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R–Ga.) and other lawmakers shouted, "Close the border!"
That last comment echoes a sentiment now common on the right. "Joe Biden made a political decision to have open borders," said Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) on Fox News last night. "The result is the worst illegal immigration in the history of our country and the worst fentanyl crisis this country has ever faced." House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R–Calif.) also pinned fentanyl deaths on a porous southern border, tweeting, "Securing our southern border would help address this crisis and save lives."
But the actual mechanics of fentanyl coming over the U.S.-Mexico border are far more complex. According to immigration analysts and federal drug enforcement data, undocumented immigrants entering the U.S. aren't primarily to blame for incoming fentanyl—rather, it's mainly U.S. citizens carrying the drug through ports of entry. Calls to "close the border" strike at the wrong target, since these are American traffickers entering the country at legal crossings.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reported that in 2019, 1,208 kilograms of fentanyl were seized at the southwest border. Just 148 kilograms—or 12 percent—were seized between ports of entry, while the rest was seized at the ports. The "predominant method of transporting illicit opioids" into the U.S., according to the DEA, is "land transportation via the interstate system." A December 2021 to May 2022 analysis of Customs and Border Protection press releases and official Twitter posts carried out by American Immigration Council Policy Director Aaron Reichlin-Melnick found that just two fentanyl seizures were attributed to people crossing the border on foot between ports of entry.
According to David J. Bier, associate director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute, "just 279 of 1.8 million arrests by Border Patrol of illegal border crossers resulted in a fentanyl seizure"—amounting to a scant 0.02 percent. "Most drug seizure events" from FY 2016 through FY 2020 at Border Patrol checkpoints "involved only U.S. citizens, and the majority of those U.S. citizen drug seizure events involved the seizure of marijuana and no other drugs," explained a Government Accountability Office report last year. Just 4 percent "involved one or more potentially removable people."
Critics point out that these statistics measure seizures—there could be untold amounts of fentanyl that simply goes undetected, smuggled between ports. In reality, it's easier for drug traffickers to evade scrutiny at the ports compared to between them. "Customs and Border Protection estimates that it caught 2 percent of cocaine at southwest land ports of entry in 2020 (the only drug it analyzed), while it estimated that its interdiction effectiveness rate for illegal crossers was about 83 percent in 2021," Bier has written. "This means that drugs coming at a port entry are about 97 percent less likely to be interdicted than a person coming between ports of entry."
Even so, critics worry that more fentanyl is entering the country as a result of higher migrant arrivals distracting immigration agents. An analysis by Reichlin-Melnick found no correlation between migration rates and opiate seizures. If immigration agents were distracted, then we would expect to see fewer drug seizures during times of higher migration—but the data don't bear this out.
Fentanyl overdoses are a pressing issue, but closing the border isn't the solution. Drug prohibition only exacerbates the negative effects of black markets and keeps treatment out of reach for addicts. And ultimately, scapegoating foreigners and painting the border with a broad brush obscures the true factors behind America's fentanyl deaths.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.