Analyzing Republican Attacks on Biden for Increase in Fentanyl Seized

U.S. border officials reported seizing 10,856 pounds of fentanyl being smuggled across the southwest border in fiscal year 2021, a 132% increase from fiscal year 2020. Some Republicans have misleadingly suggested that the amount of drugs seized is a negative development attributable to the immigration policies of President Joe Biden.

But the steep rise started in mid-2020 under then-President Donald Trump.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, chair of the House Republican Conference, was one of the Republicans citing fentanyl seizures in October as a sign of “Biden’s Border Crisis,” even though more pounds of illegal fentanyl were seized by border officials the previous October when Trump was president.

Weeks earlier, on Nov. 1, Sen. Chuck Grassley, who is the co-chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, tweeted: “Welcome 2 Pres Biden’s America where 10,000 pounds of fentanyl hv been seized by Customs & Border patrol so far this fiscal yr which is enough to kill over 2 billion ppl or more than 1/4 of the world’s population.”

There were 899 pounds of fentanyl seized at the border with Mexico in October, as Stefanik said, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

It’s also plausible, as Grassley tweeted, that 10,000 pounds of pure, high-concentration fentanyl would be enough to cause the deaths of billions, assuming a fatal dose for most people is just 2 milligrams, as the U.S. Drug and Enforcement Administration has said. However, the DEA also said that much of the illegally made fentanyl being seized, particularly at the southwest border, has a very low concentration.

“The stuff that’s seized at the southwest border is highly impure,” Bryce Pardo, a drug policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, told in an interview. If they are seizing 10,000 pounds, the amount of pure fentanyl is a small fraction of that, he said.

More important, if stopping large amounts of fentanyl from being distributed to Americans is indicative of a “crisis” at the southwest border, as those tweets imply, it’s a problem that Biden largely inherited from his predecessor. Border officials seized nearly as much fentanyl in the last nine full months of Trump’s presidency as had been seized during the first nine full months of Biden’s. 

Fentanyl Seizures

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that the DEA says is many times stronger than morphine and heroin. Pharmaceutical fentanyl is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a pain reliever and anesthetic, historically for use by cancer patients and during or after surgery. 

But the drug also is illegally manufactured in liquid, powder and pill form and trafficked into the U.S. from countries such as China, India and Mexico. CBP data show the amount of fentanyl seized at the southwest border — where well over 90% of total seizures occur — has more than doubled each fiscal year since 2019, when 2,633 pounds were confiscated.

The vast majority of the illicit fentanyl is discovered during vehicle inspections at ports of entry by CBP’s Office of Field Operations. Smaller amounts are regularly found by agents for the U.S. Border Patrol at interior checkpoints and during apprehensions of people who illegally cross the border between the legal ports. 

The amount seized accelerated dramatically toward the end of fiscal 2020, while Trump was still president, when there was a 190% increase from 233 pounds seized in May to 676 pounds in June. May 2020 was the last time there were fewer than 600 pounds of fentanyl seized at the southwest border in a single month, and the largest monthly haul to date was 1,171 pounds in October 2020, the start of the 2021 fiscal year.

In fact, southwest border officers seized 6,408 pounds of fentanyl from April 2020 to December 2020, the last full nine months of the Trump administration. That is about 83% of the 7,684 pounds seized from February 2021 to October 2021, the first full nine months of the Biden administration, which is the most recent CBP data available.

An additional 682 pounds were seized in January 2021, when Trump was president for about 20 days.

‘Biden’s Border Crisis’?

Republicans other than Stefanik and Grassley also have framed the increase in the amount of fentanyl being seized as a cause for concern and a failure of the Biden administration.

Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, tweeted on Nov. 18, “899 lbs of fentanyl and 15,631 lbs of methamphetamine were seized at the southern border in October alone. That much fentanyl is the equivalent of 204 MILLION lethal doses. We need border security!”

Later that month, on Nov. 29, Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana tweeted, “.@CBP seized enough fentanyl to kill the entire U.S. population 7 times over at the border THIS YEAR. When will Biden prioritize the safety of Americans? We need to #BuildTheWall.”

We’ve already reported the reasons some experts doubt that a border wall would have much of an impact on smuggling — starting with the fact that much of the illicit drugs are known to come through legal ports of entry, as our chart above illustrates.

In addition, as we noted earlier, Pardo from the RAND Corporation told us that lethality estimates are a “little bit misleading” because it assumes the seized fentanyl is 100% pure, which it is not. “It’s highly, highly impure stuff,” he said.

But one also might wonder: Why is seizing more fentanyl an indictment of border security, rather than a sign that border security is working as intended?

The RNC’s rapid response director, Tommy Pigott, described the GOP’s position in a Nov. 18 blog post criticizing “misguided” Democrats who have mocked the Republican claims and applauded the large amounts of fentanyl being impounded.

“As anyone who pays even the smallest attention to the border knows, fentanyl seizures are used as a proxy for illicit drug trafficking,” Piggot said. “In other words, more seizures means more fentanyl is being smuggled across the border into the U.S., not less.”

“This shows how little Democrats know about the border, and how little the American people can trust them to address the crisis Biden created,” he wrote.

Sen. Rob Portman, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, raised a similar point about the level of undetected drugs in a Nov. 17 Senate hearing, in which he referenced the more than 40% increase in fentanyl seized at the southwest border this year, from September to October.

“Can you give us a sense of what you think the amount of drugs are that are coming in that are not being seized?” Portman asked Diane Sabatino, deputy executive assistant commissioner for the Office of Field Operations. “If it’s 42% increase in seizures, what is it overall?”

Sabatino did not provide a figure at the hearing, nor did CBP respond when we contacted its press office for this story. It’s likely the answer is unknowable. 

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has said that, while the seizures data can help determine how and where illicit drugs enter the country, “There are no comprehensive data on the total quantity of foreign-produced illicit drugs smuggled into the United States at or between official ports of entry (POEs) because these are drugs that have generally evaded seizure by border officials.”

“And because we can’t measure total flow, it’s pointless to try to say we’re doing a good job or a bad job,” Pardo said. “My sense is that drug trafficking organizations in Mexico are increasing their fentanyl production because it’s cheap, it’s easy to do and it’s more profitable than heroin in the short term. So, it’s likely that flows are increasing, but we don’t know that for sure.”

He said fentanyl seizures also may have increased because the U.S., due to COVID-19, restricted inbound land border crossings from Mexico for all but essential travel.

“Because of that, you’ve essentially doubled your enforcement capacity if you’ve essentially restricted the movement of people, but you have the same amount of officers on the front lines there,” he said. “That’s probably one reason why we’re seeing more seizures. It remains to be seen what happens now that you’ve opened up the border, but that could be one of the contributing factors.”

Portman and other GOP lawmakers also have linked more fentanyl seizures to a nationwide increase in overdose deaths.

“Over 100,000 people in the last year have died from drug overdoses,” Rep. John Katko, the ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a Nov. 28 interview, referencing provisional figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicating there were that many fatalities from April 2020 to April 2021. 

“The vast majority of them had been laced with fentanyl. They seized enough fentanyl at the border in the last year to kill every man, woman and child in the United States seven times over. Think about that,” Katko said. “And, given the fact that we seize that much, I know for a fact that when you seize that much, that much more is getting through. So, it’s a crisis that this administration has created, and he is not doing anything about it.”

The CDC predicts that almost two-thirds of the overdose deaths were due to synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl. However, Biden was president for only three of the months in that one-year period. The CDC’s figures also show there were already about 95,000 overdose deaths from January 2020 to January 2021.

In addition, border officials were on pace to seize record levels of fentanyl in fiscal 2021 prior to Biden taking office. An average of almost 1,040 pounds of the drug per month were seized at the southwest border during the first quarter of that fiscal cycle, from October 2020 to December 2020. The per month average under Biden has been about 854 pounds seized.

Republicans may not agree with Biden’s approach on border security, or think he has done enough to reduce the flow of deadly drugs into the country. But if seizing more fentanyl before it gets to the public is an indicator of a much larger drug issue, the data show it’s a problem that preceded Biden rather than being one he “created,” as Katko and others have claimed.

“We’ve had an opioid crisis for a while now that spans four administrations,” Pardo said. “To say it’s any one administration is kind of politics.”

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