The GOP Is Manufacturing a Moral Panic Over Fentanyl Smuggling

Republican politicians can’t stop blaming President Biden’s “open border” for fentanyl overdoses. But the rhetoric ignores basic facts.
fentanyl-smuggling-US-border
Left: Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, from Georgia (AP Photo / Mary Altaffer) Right: A package of fentanyl pills seized in Arizona (Drug Enforcement Administration via AP, File)

More and more Republican politicians are whipping up a moral panic about fentanyl and blaming the rising number of overdoses on President Joe Biden’s “open border.”  

But the rhetoric, which has reached fever pitch as gubernatorial and midterm elections approach, ignores some basic facts: Most fentanyl is smuggled into the country through legal ports of entry—and it’s brought in by U.S. citizens, not migrants. 

Advertisement

"We're going to issue a Declaration of Invasion at our border. We're going stop [sic] the flow of fentanyl that's pouring into Arizona,” tweeted Kari Lake, a Donald Trump-endorsed Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, on Wednesday. 

Heidi Ganahl, a Republican running for governor of Colorado, also recently tweeted that she wants to end Colorado’s sanctuary state status to stop the flow of fentanyl. And Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is calling for Biden to be impeached: “Over 300 people are dying every day bc the Biden admin refuses to secure our border,” she tweeted. 

Meanwhile, Republican congressman Paul Gosar, from Arizona, directly linked migrants and fentanyl. 

“Over 5 million illegal aliens and tons of lethal fentanyl crossed the open border in the last 2 years,” he tweeted Thursday.  

Although it’s mostly Republicans linking the border with the overdose crisis, some Democrats have chimed in too. 

Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan—who has been hammered on the issue by rival J.D. Vance—tweeted Monday that he co-sponsored the Interdict Act, a law that passed back in 2018 and equipped Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents with more screening devices for fentanyl. 

Advertisement

“I won’t take a backseat to anyone when it comes to securing our border,” Ryan said. 

U.S. federal law enforcement agencies, however, have said that migrants are rarely ever used as drug mules. 

“We’ve seen some instances perhaps of migrants and drugs as a mixed event, but they’re still rare,” said Brian Sulc, executive director of the Department of Homeland Security's Transnational Organized Crime Mission Center, speaking at a congressional hearing in May. 

And CBP’s data shows that in 2021, 96 percent of fentanyl seizures took place at legal points of entry, versus just 4 percent between ports of entry, according to a report from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, published in September. 

In 2021, about 85 percent of people convicted of fentanyl trafficking were U.S. citizens compared to about 8 percent who were “illegal non citizens,” according to the same report, which cited data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. During the pandemic, Mexican cartels began almost exclusively hiring American citizens to smuggle drugs due to restrictions about crossing the border, as VICE World News previously reported.

Advertisement

“They’re subject to less scrutiny by officials at ports of entry,” said David Bier, who authored the Cato Institute report, of U.S. citizens. “It increases the probability of the product actually making it across the border.” 

Still, many Americans falsely believe drugs are smuggled into the country by people seeking asylum. 

Half of Americans think it’s at least somewhat true that migrants are responsible for bringing fentanyl and other drugs over the southern border, according to an NPR/Ipsos poll published in August. That number is higher among Republicans—70 percent versus 35 percent of Democrats. 

“The message that is being sold to voters and the American public is that migrants and immigration policies are killing Americans with fentanyl,” said Aaron Reichlin-​Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council. 

“It is a dangerous myth to be telling because it supports this outrageous theory of an invasion, of a ‘great replacement,’ and it drives a hard-line response to migrants by painting them as a threat.” The “great replacement’’ theory, which has been cited by racist and xenophobic mass killers, is a conspiracy theory that posits immigrants are white populations in Western countries. 

Cato’s Bier told VICE News that many of the measures being proposed by politicians, such as increasing the number of CBP officers or declaring cartels terrorist organizations (as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has done) won’t actually stop the flow of drugs into the country. 

Advertisement

“There’s basically unlimited supply. Anything that’s interdicted can be replaced within a day,” he said.

Bier said more law enforcement will only increase the amount of fentanyl coming into the country, because traffickers are motivated to move more-potent substances that take up less space, which is why fentanyl has been replacing heroin in North America. 

Both he and Reichlin-​Melnick said more focus needs to be placed on people using drugs in the U.S. 

“U.S. consumers are willing to pay a lot for illicit narcotics,” said Bier. “As long as they're willing to do that, there's going to be people willing to supply that market.” 

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.

Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.