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Jeff Cercone
By Jeff Cercone February 24, 2022

Fentanyl seizures are not evidence of an ‘open border’

If Your Time is short

  • Seizures of deadly fentanyl at the southern border have increased steadily since 2016, before Joe Biden became president.

  • There was a record surge of 1.7 million migrants at the southern border under Biden in 2021, but more than 1 million of those people were expelled by the continued use of a policy put in place by former President Donald Trump. There is not an "open border" between the U.S. and Mexico.

The Republican National Committee blamed what it called President Joe Biden’s "open border" for a rise in illicit drugs being smuggled into the United States through the southern border.

"Illicit drugs are flowing into the country at an alarming rate because of Biden’s open border," reads a Feb. 20 tweet from the RNC. "839 pounds of deadly fentanyl was seized at the southern border in January alone."

When we reached out to the RNC, a spokesperson cited drug seizure data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which does show that 839 pounds of fentanyl were seized at the southwest border in January. That’s up from 461 pounds in December 2021. 

But one month’s data doesn’t tell the whole story. Statistics from that same dataset reveal a more complete picture and experts we spoke with said smugglers will search until they find a way to get their drugs across the border. It’s false that there is "an open border," between the U.S. and Mexico.

Fentanyl in the U.S.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that can be deadly even in tiny amounts. It has been marketed for end-stage cancer but the U.S. Justice Department notes on its website that "illicit fentanyl now appears in powder form, and is often visually indistinguishable by law enforcement" from that which is commercially marketed. 

The drug is "primarily responsible for fueling the ongoing opioid crisis," the Drug Enforcement Agency said in its 2020 Drug Threat Assessment. The agency sent out a public safety alert in September 2021 linking U.S. fentanyl-related overdose deaths and criminal drug networks in Mexico.

The drug has taken a toll on Americans, but it’s a problem that predates Biden’s presidency. Texas Sen. John Cornyn correctly pointed out recently that there were 100,000 fatal overdoses from drugs, including fentanyl, over a one-year period. He, too, blamed Biden for "letting drugs like fentanyl pour into our communities."

PolitiFact Texas found, however, the statistics that Cornyn cited covered the period from April 2020, during the Trump administration, to April 2021, a little more than three months after Biden took office.

More recent data from the CDC shows 104,288 Americans died from drug overdoses from September 2020 to September 2021.

Drug seizures at the southwest border

Of the 839 pounds seized at the southwest border in January, 773 were seized by agents at the Office of Field Operations, which handles legal ports of entry into the U.S. The remaining 66 pounds were seized by the Border Patrol, which handles all areas in between those ports.

The amount of fentanyl seized in December 2020, during Trump’s final full month in office, was higher than during January 2022. And it appears to be part of an overall trend of higher monthly seizures that started in June 2020.

The DEA said in its 2020 threat assessment that annual fentanyl seizures at the southwest border have been steadily increasing since at least fiscal year 2016. Drugs of all kinds being seized at the southwest border are not a new phenomenon. 

"Drugs have poured over the border since the 1980s, including intensely during the Trump administration. The wall did not make any difference," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow in the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology in the the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy program.

There’s likely more drugs that were not seized

Some Twitter users replied to the RNC tweet to argue that the drugs’ seizure disproves the statement that drugs are flowing in through the border. But experts we spoke with said seizures are a "problematic" way to judge success at border protection.

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"Traffickers are constantly modulating tactics, so it's impossible to say how much is getting through via tunnels, boats, subs, ultralights, catapults, air cannons, or simply passing packages through the wall itself," said Sanho Tree, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and director of its Drug Policy Project.

Tree told PolitiFact that seizures at legal ports of entry, where most drugs are captured, have been skewed during the pandemic with fewer vehicles coming through, giving border agents more time to search them.

"Because fentanyl is so compact and easy to smuggle, we simply can't tell from seizures at (ports of entry) how that affects the national situation," Tree added. "Suffice it to say, (overdose) rates are still extremely high, and fentanyl is contaminating many different drugs." 

Katharine Neill Harris, a fellow in drug Policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, agrees.

"I think most people would agree there are more drugs not seized than seized," she said. "And if you look at seizures in the context of the overdose epidemic, then they have been a pretty ineffective intervention, as seizures and overdoses have risen together."

Evidence of an open border?

Are increased drug seizures at the border evidence of an "open border," as many Republicans allege? No.

"The term ‘open border’ seems created to deceive and mislead," said Neill Harris. "Whatever its official or original meaning was, I think when the public hears it they imagine that people are being allowed to cross into the country the way they can cross state lines. That is just not true." 

There has been a significant increase in Border Patrol encounters with immigrants since Biden took office, for a variety of reasons.

In fiscal year 2021, which began in October 2020 and ended in September, there were a record 1.7 million encounters at the southwest border, numbers not seen in more than 20 years

More than a million of those immigrants were expelled under a public health order, which President Donald Trump began using in March 2020 because of COVID-19. The Biden administration has continued that policy, defending it in federal court this January. Biden has, however, exempted children who arrive alone, as well as some families.

Still, because border agents are dealing with families and unaccompanied minors at the border, many immigrants are able to sneak across the border undetected, The Washington Post reported in April.

Our ruling

A tweet by the RNC claimed that drugs are flowing into the U.S. at an alarming rate because of Biden’s "open border." It cited stats that show 839 pounds of fentanyl were seized at the southern border in January.

While that figure is accurate, the tweet leaves out the context that seizures of fentanyl at the southwest border spiked when Trump was president. The DEA said such seizures have risen steadily since 2016.

The notion of an "open border" under Biden is inaccurate. Although there has been a record surge of migrants at the border since Biden took office, the majority of those encountered by border agents are expelled, including by the continued use of a public health order put into place by Trump.

We rate this claim Mostly False.

Louis Jacobson contributed to this report.

Our Sources

Republican National Committee, tweet on Feb. 20, 2022

The RNC, "Worst January at the border in DHS history," Feb. 18, 2022

Email exchange with Emma Vaughn, national press secretary for the RNC

PolitiFact, "Majority of opioids come to U.S. through points of entry, Lowey says," Jan. 14, 2019

PolitiFact, "Cornyn right that annual drug overdose deaths top 100,000," Feb. 21, 2022

PolitiFact, "Ron DeSantis overplays link between the opioid crisis and southern border," June 7, 2018

PolitiFact, "US southern border 'completely open'? That’s False," Dec. 2, 2021

PolitiFact: "US-Mexico border not ‘wide open,’ most people trying to enter US are turned away" July 28, 2021

PolitiFact: "Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro wrongly claims US border is ‘open to anyone from anywhere’" March 23, 2021

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, "Drug Seizure Statistics," accessed Feb. 21, 2022

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, "Southwest Land Border Encounters," accessed Feb. 21, 2022

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, "CBP Officers at South Texas Ports of Entry Post Significant Increases in Fentanyl, Cocaine Seized in FY 2021," Jan. 5, 2022

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, "U.S. Border Patrol Fiscal Year Southwest Border Sector Apprehensions (FY 1960 - FY 2020)"

U.S. Department of Justice, "Opioid facts"

Drug Enforcement Agency, "2020 National Drug Threat Assessment," March 2, 2021 

Email interview with Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow in the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology in the Foreign Policy program at The Brookings Institution, Feb. 21, 2022

Email interview with Sanho Tree, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and Director of its Drug Policy Project, Feb. 21, 2022

Email interview with Katharine Neill Harris, Alfred C. Glassell, III, Fellow in Drug Policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, Feb. 21, 2022

Pew Research Center, "What’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border in 7 charts," Nov. 9, 2021

CBS, "Biden administration defends Trump-era migrant expulsions, citing "serious" COVID-19 risk," Jan. 19, 2022

Congressional Research Service, "Illicit Drug Smuggling Between Ports of Entry and Border Barriers," Feb. 7, 2020

The Washington Post, "As lethal fentanyl flows across Mexico border, CBP tries powerful scanning technology," Feb. 13, 2022

The Washington Post, "Border officials say more people are sneaking past them as crossings soar and agents are overwhelmed," April 2, 2021

Washington Examiner, "Record fentanyl seizures at border contributed to soaring overdose deaths in US," Nov. 2, 2021

The New York Times, "Supreme Court to review Trump-era ‘Remain in Mexico’ asylum policy," Feb. 18, 2022

The New York Times, "Illegal Border Crossings, Driven by Pandemic and Natural Disasters, Soar to Record High," Oct. 22, 2021

El Paso Times, "'The worst it's ever been.' Retired El Paso DEA leader gives somber view of drug problem," Oct. 4, 2021

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Fentanyl seizures are not evidence of an ‘open border’

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