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House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, speaks Jan. 29, 2024, at a news conference in Washington. (AP) House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, speaks Jan. 29, 2024, at a news conference in Washington. (AP)

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, speaks Jan. 29, 2024, at a news conference in Washington. (AP)

Bayliss Wagner
By Bayliss Wagner February 12, 2024

GOP claims that Homeland Security secretary is ‘responsible’ for fentanyl crisis are False

If Your Time is short

  • Border policies are shaped by the Homeland Security chief, the president, and Congress, not just by Mayorkas. 
  • Although Border Patrol agents seize a small percentage of illicitly produced fentanyl, the vast majority of fentanyl enters the country in vehicles driven by U.S. citizens, Customs and Border Protection and sentencing data show. 
  • Experts said congressional funding for more vehicle scanners would significantly affect the amount of fentanyl that comes into the U.S. – and that is outside of Mayorkas’ control.
  • Our mission: Help you be an informed participant in democracy. Learn more.

In their failed push to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, some House Republicans made the fentanyl crisis a central part of their effort to prove he willfully shirked his duty to secure and monitor the U.S.-Mexico border, through which much of the synthetic opioids consumed in the U.S. flow. 

In a Jan. 19 impeachment hearing, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said Mayorkas and his border policy is "personally responsible" for fentanyl, a dangerously powerful and cheaply made synthetic opioid, coming across the southern border.

"(Fentanyl) comes from China, and they make it in Mexico, and they kill our children here. Two hundred thousand — more than Vietnam, World War II," he said. "I have seen it personally, the destruction it does every five minutes. It is a fentanyl superhighway, and (Secretary Mayorkas') border policy is personally responsible for it."

McCaul has tied Mayorkas to the fentanyl overdose death toll in the U.S. in several other media appearances, including Jan. 28 on "Fox News Sunday."

"Two hundred million people (are) dead now, thanks to fentanyl poisoning that this one man (Mayorkas) is responsible for," McCaul said. (A spokesperson for McCaul told us he meant to say 200,000 people have died of fentanyl overdoses during President Joe Biden's term, a statistic he correctly stated in the impeachment hearing.)

More than 190,000 Americans have died of overdoses from fentanyl during the Biden administration — more than in the previous decade, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it’s wrong to solely blame Mayorkas for a crisis that has roots in the 1990s, opioid policy experts said.

Border policies are shaped by the Department of Homeland Security chief, the president and Congress, not just by Mayorkas. (PolitiFact has ruled as false claims that Biden's border policies are to blame for U.S. fentanyl deaths.)

Although Border Patrol agents seize a small percentage of illicitly produced fentanyl, the vast majority of the drug enters the country in vehicles driven by U.S. citizens, Customs and Border Protection and sentencing data shows. 

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution think thank who co-directs its series "The Opioid Crisis in America: Domestic and International Dimensions," said congressional funding for more vehicle scanners would significantly reduce the amount of fentanyl that comes into the U.S. — and that is outside of Mayorkas’ control.

Most fentanyl in U.S. comes through legal ports of entry

Felbab-Brown, an internationally recognized international crime and foreign policy expert, said the fentanyl influx in the U.S. couldn’t be blamed on Mayorkas or the Biden administration.

This is because the vast majority of fentanyl seizures — more than 90% — happen at official ports of entry, as the same CBP dataset shows.

These drugs are smuggled almost entirely in vehicles driven by U.S. citizens, according to U.S. Sentencing Commission data, not by illegal immigrants wading through the Rio Grande.

As PolitiFact has previously found, drug smugglers prefer to traffic fentanyl and other illicit substances in cargo trucks to reduce risk of loss and waste. 

The quantities smuggled into the country away from legal ports of entry, however, are still significant. In House testimony that McCaul’s office referred to as evidence for his claim, National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd stated that Biden’s border policies have led to a historically high number of "got-aways," or people who were found to be crossing the border illegally but evaded apprehension. However, the estimated annual apprehension rate of undocumented migrants under Mayorkas has averaged 78%, identical to that of the Trump administration, per a Jan. 28 DHS memo.

Judd also noted Border Patrol seized about 3,243 pounds of fentanyl in Biden’s first two years in office, which means hundreds of millions of lethal doses of the synthetic opioid were brought into the country outside of legal ports of entry. The National Border Patrol Council  is the Border Patrol union.

But given a far higher quantity of fentanyl comes in cargo vehicles, the best tool we have to combat fentanyl trafficking is the use of large, noninvasive cargo scanners, Felbab-Brown said. And only Congress can allocate funds to CBP to buy new scanners or add border patrol agents.

Historically, about 2% of passenger vehicles and 17% of cargo trucks have been inspected, significantly limiting detection capability, per an October 2023 White House memo

To increase fentanyl seizures, Mayorkas and the Biden administration are requesting 123 new large-scale scanners with a goal of scanning 70% of cargo trucks by 2026. The drive-through machines use X-ray technology to scan a vehicle’s full contents in about eight minutes, compared with two hours for physical inspections that CBP has traditionally used, the memo said. 

The Biden administration and Mayorkas worked with a bipartisan group of senators for months to draft a border security package that would include funding for those scanners and allocate money for additional Border Patrol agents. The Senate reached a deal on the bill Feb. 4 but House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., said the legislation would be "dead on arrival" if it reaches his chamber.

It’s another reason that claims Mayorkas is responsible for all fentanyl coming through the border don’t hold up, Andrew Kolodny, medical director for the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University, told the Austin American-Statesman and PolitiFact.

"Congress should be appropriating funds to help with fentanyl detection," Kolodny said. "It's hypocritical to blame Biden fentanyl coming in from Mexico if Congress is not appropriating funds that could help with interdiction."

Danny W. Davis, a professor at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service who specializes in homeland and national security, said scanners are "a necessary piece, but just one piece of the puzzle" to prevent drug smuggling. 

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"Is (Mayorkas) responsible for every gram of fentanyl that comes across? No," he said. "But he is responsible for securing the border."

In response to requests for comment, McCaul did not restate his previous claims that Mayorkas is responsible for fentanyl deaths or fentanyl that enters the U.S. border.

"Secretary Mayorkas — as the head of the Department of Homeland Security — is responsible for the porous southern border," McCaul wrote in a statement. "His rescission of successful policies and refusal to enforce our nation’s laws has directly led to the chaos and death plaguing our state, as border patrol agents tell me each and every time I visit South Texas." (Read McCaul's full statement here.)

Despite Judd’s past criticism as head of the National Border Patrol Council, the union endorsed the bipartisan border package Monday, saying it is "far better than the status quo." 

As evidence for his claim, McCaul’s office also pointed PolitiFact to an article from a news website run by the conservative Heritage Foundation that quoted National Border Patrol Council  spokesman Chris Cabrera stating "It has made (the cartels’) job a whole lot easier," seemingly in response to a question about drug cartels and the Biden administration’s changes in border policy. The article provides no evidence for McCaul’s specific claim about Mayorkas and fentanyl. It also includes an X post in which Cabrera writes, "When is Congress going to wake up and get to work on the problems along our southern border?" 

Congress, president help shape homeland security policy

The DHS secretary is the top Homeland Security official and an appointed member of the president’s Cabinet. His job is to oversee enforcement of U.S. laws and executive orders relating to border security, immigration, cybersecurity, disaster response and national and economic security — a role that requires cooperation with "federal, state, local, international and private sector partners," the DHS website says.  

Congress passes the laws that the DHS must enforce and sets the department’s budget with stipulations for how money can be spent, limiting how much influence any individual secretary can have. Executive orders from the White House also direct the agency’s actions, though they are superseded by federal laws.

As such, high-level policy changes are shaped by Mayorkas and Biden, not one or the other.

One major change Biden’s administration made was to end Title 42, which allowed the U.S. to expel migrants without considering their requests for asylum, in May 2023. The administration also shifted from detaining all apprehended migrants to allowing some of them to remain in the country while awaiting asylum hearings, which critics call "catch and release."

As DHS head, Mayorkas has led operations targeting cartels, U.S. distributors

Preventing and fighting fentanyl smuggling is a multinational, multiagency affair, requiring cooperation among Mexican law enforcement officials, the Chinese government and countless other organizations. 

Also, many different federal and state entities, such as the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigations, share responsibility with DHS for investigating, arresting and prosecuting suspected criminals and smugglers, Davis noted. 

"You can't just say the Homeland Security Department has all responsibility," he said.

Over the past three years, Mayorkas has overseen several undercover operations targeting cartels in Mexico and domestic fentanyl distributors in the U.S., such as Operation Sentinel, as USA Today has reported. 

In a letter responding to the House Homeland Security Committee's impeachment allegations, Mayorkas said more than 14,000 smugglers had been arrested during his tenure and "thousands have been prosecuted under federal law."

The letter also said, "DHS has seized more fentanyl and arrested more individuals for fentanyl-related crimes in the last two years than in the previous five years combined."

Mayorkas does not completely control other factors that affect fentanyl smuggling, such as negotiations with China, which ships chemical precursors for the drugs to Mexico. Biden negotiated a deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping last year to help reduce those shipments. 

Fentanyl crisis has roots in 1990s opioid epidemic

Medicine and public policy experts have explained that the fentanyl crisis’s roots go far deeper than what Mayorkas or any one official controls.

"We have a fentanyl problem because there's an epidemic of opioid use disorder in the United States and it's coming into demand for millions of people who are addicted to opioids," Kolodny said.

The opioid epidemic began in the 1990s, long before Mayorkas became DHS secretary, and largely involved prescription opioids. After President George W. Bush’s administration cracked down on pills, Mexican cartels rushed to fill that vacuum with heroin. Synthetic opioids — a cheaper alternative to heroin and pills — began to flood the market in the early 2010s, during President Barack Obama’s administration. 

Synthetic opioid-related deaths started to sharply increase in 2013 and skyrocketed during President Donald Trump’s administration, jumping from more than 28,000 in 2017 to 57,000 in 2020, according to CDC data. These deaths continued climbing during Biden's term, with more than two-thirds of 106,699 overdose deaths in 2021 — 71,689 — resulting from synthetic opioid use. 

Kolodny has criticized the Obama and Trump administrations’ federal response to fentanyl and said the Food and Drug Administration failed to sufficiently regulate opioid manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies.

Our ruling

McCaul said during an impeachment hearing that Mayorkas' border policy is "personally responsible" for fentanyl crossing the border.

The opioid epidemic has roots in the 1990s, and illicitly-produced fentanyl began flooding U.S. markets long before Mayorkas became DHS chief. 

Although more migrants have tried to enter the U.S. under Mayorkas’ watch, the vast majority of fentanyl enters the country in vehicles driven by U.S. citizens through legal ports of entry, CBP and other data show. Noninvasive scanners are the best option for seizing fentanyl shipments, experts say, but Congress has so far declined to approve requests from Biden and Mayorkas for funding to purchase them.

Under Mayorkas, the DHS has led several efforts to target domestic networks and outside cartels, and fostered greater cooperation with Mexico to enforce laws against drug trafficking, experts said. 

We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Letter addressed to Mark E. Green, Jan. 30, 2024

American Journal of Public Health, Opioid crisis: no easy fix to its social and economic determinants, February 2018

Brandon Judd, Testimony in House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Joint Subcommittees on Oversight and Investigations & Health Hearing, Feb. 15, 2023

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Understanding the opioid epidemic, accessed Feb. 6, 2024

Customs and Border Protection, Office of the Secretary, accessed Feb. 6, 2024

CNN, Naloxone is reaching more people than ever, Jan. 13, 2023

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, Press release: McCaul speaks to families of victims of Secretary Mayorkas’ dereliction of duty, hears heartbreaking stories, Jan. 19, 2024

Customs and Border Protection, Drug seizure statistics, accessed Feb. 5, 2024

Customs and Border Protection, DHS Announces operation to target criminal smuggling organizations, April 27, 2021

Customs and Border Protection, Budget and appropriations, Oct. 4, 2023

Department of Homeland Security, Memo: House Republicans’ unconstitutional, evidence-free impeachment, Jan. 28, 2024

Department of Homeland Security, Fact Sheet: DHS is on the front lines combating illicit opioids, including fentanyl

PolitiFact, Are Biden’s border policies to blame for fentanyl deaths? Experts say no, Feb. 10, 2023

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, email statement to the Austin American-Statesman and PolitiFact, Feb. 

National Institute on Drug Abuse, Fentanyl drug facts, accessed March 17, 2023

National Center for Health Statistics, Provisional and final mortality data, accessed Jan. 31, 2024

NewsNation, How has Biden used his executive authority on immigration?, Feb. 6, 2024

PBS, How multiple presidential administrations failed to stop fentanyl’s rise in the U.S.

Phone interview, Andrew Kolodny,  Medical Director for the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative, March 14, 2023

Phone interview, Danny W. Davis, Professor of the Practice and Director of the Graduate Certificate in Homeland Security at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service

Phone interview, Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow in the Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings Institution, March 14, 2023

Texas Tribune, Texas Democrats and Republicans split on border proposal — not necessarily on party lines, Feb. 5, 2024

United States Sentencing Commission, Quick Facts — Fentanyl Trafficking Offenses, accessed March 17, 2023

USA Today, Senate releases $118 billion package addressing southern border, aid for Ukraine and Israel, Feb. 4, 2024

USA Today, Blue Lotus, Four Horsemen, Hydra and Pelican Bones: How the US fights the fentanyl crisis, July 17, 2023

USA Today, Biden and Xi agree to curb fentanyl production, resume military talks at San Francisco summit, Nov. 15, 2023

USA Today, Title 42 is over; Biden says new approach at southern border will take time to work

White House, Statement from President Joe Biden on the bipartisan Senate border security negotiations, Jan. 26, 2024

White House, White House calls on Congress for immediate action to continue the administration’s work to disrupt fentanyl Trafficking, Oct. 20, 2023

The Washington Post, U.S. deploys powerful scanners at border to fight fentanyl smuggling

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