Vehicle traffic at the border
Vehicles line up for US Immigration and Customs processing at the US border entry point from Tijuana, Mexico. Credit: Arthur Greenberg / Shutterstock
Susan Campbell

Let’s pause the “close the border” discussion. As Republicans beat that drum, the latest plank in their argument is that the blame for the scourge that is fentanyl can be laid at the feet of people who seek to enter the U.S. illegally at our southern border. 

Hence, we must close that border.

The problem is, the data does not support this. In fact, the data says something else entirely.

But partisans never let the facts get in the way of a good political meme. Pick a Republican and scroll through his/her posts on Twitter. There, lifting their voices as one fact-free bleat, they repeat the lie that fentanyl comes to hard-hit areas like the Northeast stashed in the meager belongings of undocumented Mexicans, Ecuadorians, and Guatemalans.

Joining the choir from Connecticut are George Logan, who wants to unseat Democratic incumbent Rep. Jahana Hayes in the 5th, and Leora Levy, the former Republican fundraiser who is running for U.S. senator against the incumbent, Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat.

The only thing I agree with in Candidate Levy’s tweet is that eight babies dead from fentanyl intoxication are eight too many. Fentanyl is a serious threat. Between March ’21 and March ’22, synthetic opioids, including illegally manufactured fentanyl, were involved in two-thirds of all opioid overdose deaths, according to provisional data from the CDC.

Beyond that, Candidate Levy is slinging nonsense, and regurgitating the ready-fire-aim rhetorical flourishes embedded in the state GOP’s 2022 campaigns. 

In fact, the vast bulk of fentanyl-smuggling is not committed by Mexicans or South Americans at the border, but by U.S. citizens – and immigration experts make the case that severely limiting our southerly ports of entry during the pandemic only exacerbated the situation.

Last year, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, U.S. citizens accounted for 86.3% of convicted fentanyl drug traffickers. The most common smuggling route is and was not along footpaths through the desert, but through ports of entry. Fentanyl arrives by car and truck. 

According to a March ‘21 Drug Enforcement Agency report, drug cartels “exploit major highway routes for transportation,” and the most common way to smuggle in drugs such as fentanyl is through ports of entry in passenger vehicles “with concealed compartments,” such as the case in a recent arrest in Barstow, Calif. Or, according to the DEA, the illegal drugs are mixed in with “legitimate goods on tractor-trailers.” Officials from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agree.

So why would Republicans continue to say that immigrants are illegally transporting this fairly-easy-to-conceal drug? Because they desperately hope to capture lightning in a bottle again. From a report by America’s Voice, an immigration reform group, this campaign season, the Republicans are busy hitting all the nativist stops in a trifecta of threats – fentanyl, borders, and a fake “invasion” of brown people coming to take your jobs and introduce you to drugs that will kill you. It’s one reason governors such as Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida can pull dehumanizing political stunts such as lying to get immigrants loaded onto buses and planes to be dropped off far away – like Martha’s Vineyard. These truth-challenged men have managed to frighten the basest members of their base into thinking that the borders are wide open (they’re not) and that people seeking to come here are dangerous (nope).

The GOP offers these stunts in lieu of actual immigration policy.

How pervasive is this message among Republican candidates? America’s Voice tracked 4,000 separate pieces of GOP political communication and found that three-quarters (2,596 ads, 481 emails) “employ dog whistles.” That tracks, considering their party leader perfected that whistle. One of his first acts as president was an executive order that enacted a travel ban from several Muslim-majority countries. Why? Because he could, and because an order like that was red meat to his base.

Still, that was 2017 and this is 2022. I suppose if you don’t have anything new to offer, you go back to the trough that once was so plentiful. This despite the fact that today’s voters are expressing more concern about abortion and the economy than immigration, according to a Pew study from August.

Ah, well. The Republicans don’t take advice from me, but if they did, I’d suggest they try discussing data-driven policies. Fear can only take you so far. Better, if you can educate the populace about the actual threat from within, then perhaps you can enact effective immigration and drug policies, and create a state and a nation that works for everyone.

Author of "Frog Hollow: Stories From an American Neighborhood," "Tempest Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker," and "Dating Jesus: Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl." Find more at

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