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Blog Post: Immigrants are not to Blame for America’s Fentanyl Crisis

Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force   Blog

Americans have become increasingly concerned over the growing fentanyl crisis. In 2021, there were over 70,000 overdose deaths attributed to synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl. This number is a drastic increase from the 5,544 deaths recorded in 2014. Last month, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called fentanyl the “single greatest challenge we face as a country.”

Fentanyl is mostly being trafficked into the country through the U.S.-Mexico border. In 2022, 14,104 pounds of fentanyl was seized at the southern border alone. It is important to note that immigrants are not driving America’s fentanyl crisis. Addressing misinformation and misunderstanding about the role of immigration in the fentanyl crisis is fundamental for the safety of communities across the United States

People often conflate unauthorized border crossings with fentanyl trafficking, believing that those crossing the border are the ones smuggling in illegal drugs. In a 2022 NPR/IPSOS poll, approximately half of all respondents somewhat or completely believed that “migrants bringing fentanyl and other illegal drugs over the southern border are responsible for the increase in drug overdoses in the U.S.” The poll also found that 49% of respondents hear about migrants bringing fentanyl over the southern border.

Yet, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 86% of fentanyl trafficking offenders between 2017 and 2021 were American citizens. Data also shows that among unauthorized migrants arrested by Border Patrol agents, only 0.02% were caught possessing fentanyl. Victor Manjarrez, director for the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas, El Paso and a former Border Patrol agent, states that the majority of drugs are smuggled in through legal ports of entry due to  disorderly border processing:

“When you look at the chaos and clutter that occurs at a port of entry, just with the legitimate traffic…if you’re looking at a couple of pounds of fentanyl hidden in that chaos – you know, if you’re the bad guy, you kind of like your odds.”

Border security policies need to be directed at those actually responsible for the illegal drug smuggling. In response to the large amount of fentanyl coming across the border, the Department of Homeland Security created Operation Blue Lotus to better detect and stop drug trafficking. This operation was originally launched on March 13, 2023, and successfully seized 900 pounds of fentanyl within its first week. The program utilizes additional personnel and advanced technology along the border to immediately pursue investigations and test substances as they cross the border. Operation Blue Lotus aims to stop those coming across the border with fentanyl and help detect and end illicit drug networks.

Although border security is a critical part of addressing the fentanyl crisis, focusing on it alone will not be an effective solution. In a February hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on fentanyl trafficking, Dr. Rahul Gupta, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) stated:

“I want to emphasize that while seizures and arrests are critically important, this problem does not begin or end at the United States border.”

Taking a public health perspective is also necessary to address the demand for fentanyl, overdose prevention, and addiction recovery. Anti-immigrant rhetoric distracts policymakers and the public from addressing the larger issues and instills fear and shame in the immigrant community, which can prevent individuals from seeking or providing help when needed. In order to most effectively respond to the fentanyl crisis, immigrants must be seen as an ally, not a target.


Written by Mia Pope, LEITF Intern

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