Senate Democrats on Tuesday made their most forceful push yet against narratives linking immigration and the fentanyl crisis, slamming Republicans for their attempts to entangle the two issues.
Data shows the vast majority of fentanyl enters the U.S. through the cars of American citizens, a fact highlighted repeatedly by Democrats as GOP lawmakers increasingly cast blame at Mexico in the fight against fentanyl.
“Some are pushing the narrative that asylum seekers are smuggling fentanyl across the border when the facts tell a different story,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“It is predominantly U.S. citizens entering illegally at ports of entry who are bringing these dangerous drugs into the United States. So it’s hard to understand why some have opposed funding for technology like non-intrusive inspection systems to help Customs and Border Protection officers to detect fentanyl in vehicles coming through these ports of entry. The reality is, DHS is working aggressively.”
Senators on Tuesday signaled a willingness to increase funding for equipment to screen for drugs at border checkpoints amid a steady surge in fentanyl deaths in recent years, a limited point of agreement as the parties remain highly divided over the border.
The consensus around better screening comes as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last week credited new equipment as a factor in seizing 900 pounds of fentanyl in a week, a massive haul.
More than 90 percent of fentanyl seized by DHS is detected at border checkpoints, while an analysis of sentencing data shows American citizens accounted for 86 percent of convictions for fentanyl trafficking.
“This problem has risen under Republican presidents, Democratic presidents. This is not a partisan issue. This is an American issue. This is an American crisis,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said at the hearing, where Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testified.
“To present this as a problem that is just a Mexico problem, and not discuss the facts that the weapons the cartels are using the majority, according to your testimony are coming from the United States, that the majority of the people we are arresting coming across the border, trafficking, that they are coming through the ports of entry, means that we have to look to solutions that meet the facts of the crisis,” Booker said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he saw the need to boost screening at ports, but he also reiterated prior calls to designate cartels as foreign terrorist organizations, a determination that would fall to the State Department, Mayorkas noted.
“I would like to work with you where I can. You need more money for interdiction. I will work with Senator Durbin to get it to you,” Graham said.
But he wants the U.S. to take a more aggressive posture towards cartels – an issue where the Mexican government has stressed it needs U.S. cooperation to stem the flow of weapons purchased in America and funneled to cartels.
“What are we going to do about the poisoning of America? So here’s what I would say: America is under attack. Our nation is being attacked by foreign powers called drug cartels in Mexico,” Graham said during his opening statement.
In some cases, however, Republicans pushed back on data about fentanyl at the border which indicates the portion of drugs smuggled between ports of entry is just a trickle compared to what is being driven through in cars.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) repeatedly called DHS statistics about the high percentage of seizures at ports of entry a “made up number,” alleging that those crossing between ports of entry could be carrying drugs.
“You have no idea how many of those people were carrying fentanyl or other drugs with them? Do you?” Cornyn asked.
DHS reports show fentanyl seizures at ports of entry have topped 90 percent each of the last seven years, though it estimates that that it interdicts just a fraction of the drugs smuggled across the border.
Republican seized on an exchange with U.S. Border Patrol chief Raúl Ortiz who earlier this month in an appearance before House Republicans agreed that the U.S. is not meeting the definition of operational control of the border as defined under the Secure Fence Act of 2006. Under the law, such a standard is only met when not a single person illegally enters the U.S.
Mayorkas dismissed the standard in response to a question from Graham.
“By that definition, no administration has ever had operational control. So the way I define it is maximizing the resources that we have to deliver the most effective results. And we are indeed doing that,” he said.
Rafeal Bernal contributed.