Ad Misleads on Percentage Increase in Fentanyl Seizures Under Biden

The overall increase in fentanyl seized at the southwest border under President Joe Biden is nowhere near as high as a Republican ad misleadingly claims. U.S. border officials seized 13,021 pounds of the drug in Biden’s first full 15 months in office, which is 70% more than the 7,677 pounds seized in Donald Trump’s last full 15 months as president.

But an ad from Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson and the National Republican Senatorial Committee suggests that the increase under Biden was nearly 58 times higher.

“Joe Biden opened America’s borders, increasing the flow of deadly drugs into our communities,” the ad’s narrator says of the president, who does not have an “open borders” immigration policy, as the ad falsely suggests. For example, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have continued to apprehend and expel tens of thousands of people each month. 

At the same time the narrator makes that claim, a graphic shown on screen says: “4,000 percent increase in fentanyl.” That was the multiyear increase for a tiny subset of fentanyl seizures at a point in 2021.

In a June 2 press release, Johnson’s campaign said its ad is “part of a seven-figure statewide television and digital ad buy with the NRSC.” The ad’s narrator goes on to say that “Biden’s putting our children and families at risk,” while Johnson “is warning everyone that drug traffickers are adding fentanyl to counterfeit pills.”

Johnson is up for reelection in 2022 in a Senate race that the Cook Political Report and other election prognosticators expect to be competitive.

The ad attributes the 4,000% figure to a June 29, 2021, NBC News article that focused on a three-year increase in fentanyl seized between legal ports of entry in only the El Paso, Texas, sector of the U.S. border with Mexico.

“Federal agents in this section of the southern border say they’ve seen a staggering 4,000 percent increase in fentanyl seizures over the last three years,” the article said. “Those busts are not at ports of entry, where most smuggled drugs are typically found. The Border Patrol says the rising amount of fentanyl is being found in the desert – transported by increasingly brazen smugglers who are exploiting stretched federal resources.”

NBC News reported that the amount of fentanyl seized in that area increased from 1 pound in fiscal year 2018 to 41 pounds through part of fiscal year 2021. Two pounds were seized in fiscal year 2019, and 9 pounds in fiscal year 2020.

The federal fiscal year, designated by the year in which it ends, runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.

“So the big rise came during President Biden’s time in office even if the statistic cited spanned multiple years,” Alexa Henning, a Johnson campaign spokesperson, told in an email explaining the ad’s use of the 4,000% figure.

But the ad still leaves the misleading impression that the increase was 4,000% under Biden, when it was 489% and only in that one area. The percentage increase under Biden is much smaller when factoring in fentanyl seizures in all regions of the border.

Total Seizures at the Southern Border

There are no comprehensive data on the total amount of illicit fentanyl smuggled into the U.S., so Republicans and others often point to the amount that is stopped from entering the country as a proxy for how much may get past officials undetected. 

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid many times stronger than morphine and heroin, and can be fatal in very small doses. The drug has contributed to an increasing number of overdose deaths in the U.S. — sometimes when people unknowingly consume counterfeit pills and other illegally manufactured drugs that have been laced with fentanyl.

But the fentanyl captured between legal ports of entry in the El Paso region is a small fraction of the total amount seized across the entire southern border each year. For instance, Border Patrol agents in the southwest seized a total of 1,002 pounds of the drug in between legal ports of entry in FY 2021. That was about 27% more than the 786 pounds those officials seized in that region in FY 2020.

In addition, as mentioned in the NBC News article — and as we’ve previously reported — the vast majority of the fentanyl seized comes through legal ports of entry, not from illegal migration in the desert between those ports.

In total, there were 10,586 pounds seized in the southwest border region in FY 2021, including fentanyl captured during inspections by CBP’s Office of Field Operations, which manages the over 300 legal U.S. ports of entry. That was about 132% more than the 4,558 pounds seized by both the OFO and Border Patrol in FY 2020.

As for FY 2022, there had been 6,237 pounds of fentanyl seized through April, according to the most recent CBP data. That’s slightly more than the 6,096 pounds seized in the same seven-month period in FY 2021.

But the fiscal year comparisons obscure the fact that the steep rise in seized fentanyl started in mid-2020 under Trump, as the chart above illustrates. In fact, 36% of the fentanyl seized in FY 2021 was during the first four months of that fiscal year, when Trump was president for a full 111 of those 123 days.

Overall, about 13,021 pounds of fentanyl were seized in Biden’s first full 15 months in office, which is 70% more than the 7,677 pounds of fentanyl that were seized in Trump’s last full 15 months as president. That’s significantly less than 4,000%.

By citing a figure from the NBC News article about the multiyear increase in the relatively small amounts of fentanyl seized between legal entry ports in one section of the southern border, the anti-Biden/pro-Johnson ad gives viewers the misleading impression that the percentage increase under Biden has been much larger than it actually is.

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