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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 wallJOSE LUIS GONZALEZ/REUTERS/NewscomPresident 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.

Photo Credit: JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ/REUTERS/Newscom

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  • SIV||

    "Libertarians For Harsher Drug Enforcement"

    What a fuckin' joke. Suderman's "You Didn't Build That" was the dam bursting. Y'all don't even pretend anymore.

  • Libertymike||

    Actually, Peter is to libertarian principles as was Kent to Lear.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    To be very, very clear: I'm not complaining about the drop in drug arrests

    From the article...try again.

  • Scott S.||

    Why are you even posting on these things if you're not going to read them first?

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    It's much easier for our resident Conservatarians to just reflexively defend Trump's administration.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    I find it difficult to believe anyone at this site would be dumb or vile enough to defend the Trump administration with respect to this situation.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    It's much easier for our resident Anarchists to just reflexively attack Trump's administration.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    It's much easier for our resident Anarchists and Lefties to just reflexively attack Trump's administration.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Its also much easier for our resident squirrels to reflexively double post and fuck our posts up.

  • Here for the outrage||

    Is removing power from cartels a good or a bad thing?

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    Try actually reading the article


    To be very, very clear: I'm not complaining about the drop in drug arrests. The federal drug war is harsh and ridiculous.

    Really, the point here is to call bullshit on the claim that this cruel treatment of immigrant families protects Americans.
  • SIV||

    ^Shackleford and a pair of his socks^

  • Here for the outrage||

    Cruel treatment leads to less drugs crossing the border

    Remind me why this should make me upset

  • Dillinger||

    >>>Actual drug-trafficking cases declined significantly.

    um, hooray yeah?

  • Ken Shultz||

    I appreciate that Shackford isn't complaining about the drug war being watered down and is saying that the federal government prosecuting immigration violations is taking away from their capacity to prosecute drug crimes.

    That probably isn't the only reason drug-trafficking prosecutions are plunging along the border. To some extent, the legalization of marijuana in California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington state, Colorado, etc. must mean that domestic producers can increase their production at the expense of importers, right? They must be displacing at least some of the supply that would come from across the border.

    I'd also argue that drug traffickers may be having a harder time of it if the Trump administration is cracking down on immigration, too. Immigration slowed down dramatically after Trump won, with people in Mexico being less likely to come to the U.S. for fear that they're more likely to be deported than in the past. To some extent, traffickers may be experiencing the same thing just on seizures. The federal government is still presumably seizing the drug shipments they find, right?

    Prosecutions in federal court aside, if it's harder for traffickers to get product across the border now, that by itself would discourage trafficking.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    Yep. From the linked USA Today article:

    Martinez said the decline in drug prosecutions in New Mexico is the result of less smuggling, not less attention from prosecutors and agents. For years, she said, border agents have caught fewer and fewer people trying to carry backpacks loaded with marijuana across the border. That number, she said, hit a new low this year.

    This seems like an angle that libertarians should be using to argue for more legalization.

    Prosecutions in federal court aside, if it's harder for traffickers to get product across the border now, that by itself would discourage trafficking.
    I'm not sure that I agree with this, necessarily. The trade is just too lucrative. More likely it means that the traffickers continue to find better ways in evading the border patrol. It's at least conceivable that the focus on zero tolerance is making it easier to smuggle undetected.

  • Uncle Adolf's Gas and Grill||

    Maybe the most obvious reason there's less pot being smuggled from Mexico is that these days it's easier to smuggle it in from Colorado, ya think? Either that or our illegal immigrants are becoming more virtuous.

  • Bubba Jones||

    IIRC you can legally purchase in CO and then fly with a small amount. Hell, wouldn't you rather drive a trunk load from CO to AZ than from Mexico?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Yes, it's beautiful country out there. And you can stop for some fine green chili based foods in Santa Fe. Really a nice way to spend a weekend.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    Just imagine how much of a hit the cartels would take if marijuana was legal in all 50 states? Now imagine if meth and cocaine were legal?

    This is the libertarian spin on the USA Today story that I would have expected. We can't just be anti- whichever administration is in power all the time. We have to stand for policy solutions to these problems.

  • Colossal Douchebag||

    OT Leo, I had forgotten the source of your name until I happened upon it again a couple of days ago. Big props.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    Thanks. That's my favorite novel of hers.

    Based on your comment, maybe you're not as colossal as you thought? :)

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Prosecutions in federal court aside, if it's harder for traffickers to get product across the border now, that by itself would discourage trafficking.

    I find this to be entirely plausible without making any judgement to the drug war, or how they're prosecuted. This could easily be spun as a success of the Trump Administration border crackdown.

  • Colossal Douchebag||

    This.

    People-- especially writers at Reason-- who don't understand statistics and causality, make baby Jesus cry.

  • Agammamon||

    To some extent, the legalization of marijuana in California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington state, Colorado, etc. must mean that domestic producers can increase their production at the expense of importers, right?

    Couple things here.

    1. Outside of CA, those other states still require medical marijuana permissions for users *and* all of them (CA included) impose pretty restrictive and expensive requirements for growers. It may no longer be easier, but its usually still *cheaper* to go to your corner drug dealer for a bag.

    2. The US hasn't been a major pot importer for a long time. Like long before Trump showed up. Its just not been a significant percentage of the drug traffic coming across for a while now. Certainly not enough to make up close to 30% of the cross-border smuggling.

  • Overt||

    Ok, I have a new theory about what is going on with Hit and Run.

    Essentially, it isn't that people like Suderman are leftists. It is that they are lazy. As I've watched Hit and Run over the last year or two, I have basically seen that they don't actually create any original content. They find an article and basically spend 3 paragraphs excerpting from that article, and then one or two sentences to give it a Libertarian spin.

    As others note above, the real libertarian spin would be "Drug Arrests down, YAY!" But since the entire article was created from the prism of Trump Bad, there is really nothing that can be done to make a libertarian message out of it.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that a significant proportion of HNR posts are driven by some sort of "Trending Articles" service that these guys use. It is a pitty, because the unwillingness of H&R posters to do original content means that they are always going to end up derivative of the general news cycle- a cycle completely driven by the 2 party system they claim to oppose.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    Try actually reading the article


    To be very, very clear: I'm not complaining about the drop in drug arrests. The federal drug war is harsh and ridiculous.

    Really, the point here is to call bullshit on the claim that this cruel treatment of immigrant families protects Americans.
  • Echo Chamber||

    You seem to be making his point: that "They find an article and basically spend 3 paragraphs excerpting from that article, and then one or two sentences to give it a Libertarian spin." Ok, in this case it was 3 sentences, not 2

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "Ok, in this case it was 3 sentences, not 2"

    No, it was the entire 5 paragraphs following the quote from the outside article.

  • ||

    the unwillingness of H&R posters to do original content means that they are always going to end up derivative of the general news cycle

    That's what H&R is. Staff writers giving their hot takes on the "news of the day." Original content goes in the magazine, generally with a promotional link in H&R.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    IF I WANTED HOT TAKES, I'D READ TWITTER

  • Bubba Jones||

    Well, this is H&R. Not Reason magazine.

    http://reason.com/covers/all

  • Cathy L||

    As I've watched Hit and Run over the last year or two, I have basically seen that they don't actually create any original content. They find an article and basically spend 3 paragraphs excerpting from that article, and then one or two sentences to give it a Libertarian spin.

    "I finally figured out the difference between original reporting and blogging."

  • Overt||

    I disagree. There are two ways to blog. 1) Offer up the link with a snarky comment. 2) Reference the link and then go into your diatribe. I have noticed more and more that H&R does some weird hybrid. They reference a link, then spend several paragraphs restating what is in the article. And I am not the only one who notices this. I believe some Reddit subs banned them as a link spammer a year or so ago.

    Not every post is like this, but I have seen it getting worse, especially with the Kavanaugh hearings.

  • Careless||

    the "trending articles service" is called "Twitter"

  • damikesc||

    but on poor immigrant families.

    you missed "illegal" in the description there, son.

  • Scott S.||

    No I did not.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Shackleford has spellcheck and wokecheck, bub.

  • Homple||

    And for many of the department's immigration arrests, being in the country illegally was their only crime.

    How many crimes does one have to commit before being arrested, then?

  • Cathy L||

    Typically? Hundreds, if not thousands. How many misdemeanors did you commit this week? Have you been arrested yet?

  • Homple||

    None that I know of. But if I was an illegal migrant, I'm pretty sure I'd know about commiting that one.

    We have 11,000,000 illegal migrants in the country (certainly not an overestimate) and very few ever get arrested. That's why we have 11,000,000.

  • Cathy L||

    You've never jaywalked?

    You've never been publicly intoxicated? Never left a child in a vehicle? Never drank underage?

  • Fancylad||

    So illegally residing in a foreign country is equal to jaywalking or being a little tipsy in the TGI Fridays parking lot?

    Hope that argument works the next time I overstay my visa in Japan. If not I'm blaming you.

  • Aloysious||

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

    We'll just print more resources, just like we can print moar munny.

  • dwshelf||

    Sure, leave out the default hypothesis: prosecuting everyone who gets caught makes drug hauling far more dangerous, and fewer people sign up for the job.

  • Colossal Douchebag||

    Shhhh. Whaddaya think this is, Reason or something?

  • dwshelf||

    What kind of person argues that less drugs crossing the border is a bad thing?

    Or, for that matter, argues that less interdiction means something other than fewer targets.

  • Echospinner||

    Perhaps the smugglers are just getting better at it. Just saw today about a tunnel they found, very sophisticated with solar power and a rail. The profit is so high that losses are just a part of cost of doing business.

    The best news would be a drop in demand for heroin, fentanyl and meth but I do not see evidence of that.

  • Cathy L||

    What kind of person argues that less drugs crossing the border is a bad thing?

    Drug buyers?

  • Agammamon||

    What kind of person argues that less drugs crossing the border is a bad thing?

    A person who isn't afraid that the 'junkies will take their baby!!11!!' A person who understands that the violence in the drug trade is solely an artifact of drug prohibition.

    Or, for that matter, argues that less interdiction means something other than fewer targets.

    Yes, because it makes perfect sense that *now* the CBP has figured out how to scare the smugglers away when they haven't been able to do so for 40 years.

  • Careless||

    Really, the point here is to call bullshit on the claim that this cruel treatment of immigrant families

    What immigrant families?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    The threat of immediate deportation without excuses is more effective at keeping illegals and drug runners at bay.

    With that being said, repeal the unconstitutional Controlled Substances Act.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    ...I'm not complaining about the drop in drug arrests.

    WELL IT SURE SOUNDS LIKE YOU ARE.

  • SIV||

    Fist gets it.

  • EirkKengaard||

    The realities underlying the immigration debate are that we have more than enough people, more than enough imported poor people (see The Characteristics of Unauthorized Immigrants in California, Los Angeles County, and the United States by Karina Fortuny et al; the February 9, 2006 report by the California Legislative Analysts Office (LAO) on efficacy of border police; the Analysis of the California 2001-02 Budget Bill by the LAO), and more than enough imported criminals (read about Jamiel Shaw, Kate Steinle, Juan Francisco De Luna Vasquez, ); consider the disproportionate medicare fraud, food stamp fraud, and mortgage fraud by recent arrivals from cultures in which crime and fraud are normal - look up Glendale medicare fraud.

  • Fancylad||

    "OMG TRUMP'S BORDER WAR IS..."
    Border war? Shackford's actually calling an illegal immigration crackdown a "Border War"?
    It's maybe time to rename Reason something like Emotion or Hysterics Magazine instead.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    This is clear evidence of what Lefties think. They are at war with America. Americans wanting more border security is fighting words to Lefties trying to undermine American rule of law under the constitution.

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