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Some pols blame fentanyl on the undocumented. It’s mostly citizens who are bringing it

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Some pols blame fentanyl on the undocumented. It’s mostly citizens who are bringing it

Jun 12, 2024 | 5:00 am ET
By Marty Schladen
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Some pols blame fentanyl on the undocumented. It’s mostly citizens who are bringing it
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VANDALIA, OHIO -Former U.S. President Donald Trump and Ohio Republican U.S. Senator JD Vance. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.)

Following the lead of former President Donald Trump, some Ohio Republicans are saying that undocumented migrants are bringing the deadly scourge of fentanyl with them. 

Several experts say such statements are highly misleading. And anti-hate groups say such statements paint yet another target on the backs of a population that’s already been victimized by racist violence.

Trump has been conflating undocumented migrants and crime since he announced his candidacy in 2015, when he said people crossing the border from Mexico are “bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Trump and his allies relentlessly whip up anger over individual, horrific crimes committed by the undocumented. But research shows that the group commits crime at substantially lower rates than the native born.

“Isolated incidents are magnified,” Michael Debruhl, a former Border Patrol chief, said during a recent press conference hosted by the National Immigration forum. “Things are said over and over, so I don’t blame people for thinking there’s a migrant crime wave. Unfortunately, there are crimes committed by migrants. But when you look into the facts regarding migration and crime, that (notion of a) migrant crime wave just does not hold up.”

Heedless of the facts, Trump persists in his attacks on migrants, which many observers say are part of a larger, authoritarian bent that increasingly dominates his rhetoric.

In 2022, he called to terminate the Constitution, and in December he said he would be a dictator on his first day in office if he’s reelected. Last November, Trump seemed to echo Adolph Hitler when in a speech he called his political opponents “vermin.”

Many also heard such echoes last December, when in a speech in Iowa Trump told his followers that immigrants crossing the southern border were “poisoning the blood” of the United States. Trump said he didn’t know that his rhetoric on immigration echoes that of Hitler.

Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, who is said to be in the top tier of candidates to be Trump’s vice presidential pick, also denied the Hitler connection. Vance said the former president — and current convicted felon — wasn’t mimicking Germany’s genocidal maniac, he was referring to a crisis that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans.

“First of all, he didn’t say immigrants were poisoning the blood of this country,” Vance told the Washington, D.C. news organization The Hill after Trump made the remarks. “He said illegal immigrants were poisoning the blood of this country, which is objectively and obviously true to anybody who looks at the statistics about fentanyl overdoses.” 

Problem is, that’s misleading, according to several experts.

“A lot of people think that all the drugs are being brought in by migrants, but the truth is that between 92% and 94% of all the drugs that come into the country come through the ports of entry,” Debruhl, the former Border Patrol official, said.

That makes sense when you consider that people smuggling narcotics are are 97% less likely to be stopped at ports of entry than are undocumented migrants crossing between them, Cato Institute analyst David J. Bier reported in 2022.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports that 98% of private vehicles and 83% of commercial vehicles are currently coming through the ports of entry unscanned. It hopes to reduce those figures to 60% and 30%, respectively, once advanced scanning equipment is installed by 2026.

In addition, the vast majority of people convicted of fentanyl trafficking are American citizens — 86.3% in 2021, Bier said.

In addition, Bier said in a May press conference hosted by the Immigration Forum that in all their encounters with migrants in 2023, Border Patrol Agents found fentanyl just 0.009% of the time.

“It doesn’t make sense to put a backpack (of fentanyl) on a bunch of people and send them across the border,” Bier said.

That’s not to say, however, that no drugs are crossing between the ports of entry, or that none are on the backs of the undocumented. The Drug Enforcement Agency in 2021 said they’re predominantly coming through the ports in vehicles, but in 2024 some were coming overland and through tunnels.

John Modlin, Chief Patrol Agent for the Tucson Sector in early 2023 told the House Oversight Committee that agents in his sector in 2022 seized 364 pounds of fentanyl that had been backpacked across the border.

Vance has taken a pass this year when he had a chance to vote for two pieces of legislation that purported to help stop fentanyl from coming over the southern border

One was the FEND off Fentanyl Act, which was introduced by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and cosponsored by Vance. Vance said he couldn’t support final passage because it became part of a package that included funding for Ukraine.

Another was the bipartisan border security bill, that included funding for additional customs officer and new technology. It was poised to pass, when Trump tanked it by telling Republicans not to give President Joe Biden a political win by voting for it.

The consensus among experts is that the great majority of illicit fentanyl is coming in vehicles driven through the ports of entry — and most of it is being driven by U.S. citizens. But some on the right are trying to blame the evolving opioid crisis on migrants — and to hammer Biden.

“1.2 million undocumented illegal immigrants have slipped through CBP under the Biden Admin,” Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said on X last year. “Fentanyl overdose deaths continue to rise, including in our Ohio communities. We can’t have immigration reform expect to curb fentanyl overdoses until we secure our southern border.”

Falsely blaming migrants for Ohio’s opioid epidemic could subject them and others who look like them to violence, such as the 2019 massacre at an El Paso Walmart that killed 23. 

The Dangerous Speech Project studies how rhetoric can whip up violence between groups of people. It says that speech that incites fear is especially dangerous. And it’s not hard to see how loading blame for the presence of dangerous drugs onto the backs of migrants might incite fear.

“A defining feature of dangerous speech is that it often promotes fear, as much as it expresses or promotes hatred,” the group says on its website. “For example, one can assert that another group is planning to attack one’s own group without expressing hatred, yet that message might easily convince people to condone or commit violence, ostensibly to fend off the attack. Violence would seem defensive, and therefore justified.”