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In Midst of Fentanyl Crisis, Vulnerable Democrats Voted Down Opioid Detection Funding

Customs and Border Protection officers search for fentanyl / Getty Images
and • December 2, 2021 2:30 pm

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As a record number of Americans died of drug overdoses in early 2021, Senate Democrats unanimously blocked an amendment that would have provided hundreds of millions of dollars in "opioid detection activities" at the southern border.

From April 2020 to April 2021, more than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics. An overwhelming majority of those deaths came from opioids, and fentanyl smuggling has surged at the southern border since the start of Joe Biden's presidency. In March, however, Senate Democrats blocked a Republican motion that would have provided "$300 million for U.S. Customs and Border Protection narcotic and opioid detection activities."

That vote came as border crossings that month reached the highest level in 15 years. Law enforcement experts have long warned that Mexican cartels ramp up their drug smuggling operations during periods when Border Patrol faces strained resources, a reflection of how the opioid and border crises are intertwined. Without more dedicated funding for policing, critics of Democratic immigration policies say, gangs south of the border will keep taking advantage of overwhelmed Border Patrol agents.

"In Del Rio, [Customs and Border Protection] went four months without apprehending any hard drugs at a time when we know fentanyl deaths are up, drug deaths are up, so the drugs have to be there," said Andrew Arthur, a former immigration judge and a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies. "The obvious conclusion to draw is the agents are so overwhelmed in Del Rio they just don't have the opportunity to stop any drugs."

With little evidence that drug activity will recede barring a dramatic change in priorities from the Biden administration, swing-state Democrats will likely face a barrage of attacks on the issue in the lead-up to the 2022 midterm elections. Those who voted against the GOP opioid provision include Democratic senators from Georgia, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Arizona up for reelection next year. Those four states, much like the rest of the country, have seen opioid overdoses spike in the last several years.

In Arizona, where Sen. Mark Kelly will run for a second term, drug overdose deaths spiked by 33.5 percent in 2020 compared with the previous year. Kelly's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Kelly, like other vulnerable Democrats, has tried to toe a line between calling for more border security and appeasing his party's left-wing base. Even though Kelly voted down the anti-trafficking amendment, he pledged the next month to "continue holding this administration accountable" on immigration after he said the president's address to Congress failed to adequately address the border "crisis."

But Kelly has also voted down other amendments aimed at bolstering border security, including one in February that protected former president Donald Trump's "Remain in Mexico" policy and another in May that prohibited the Biden administration from canceling border wall contracts that had already received federal funds. Those votes prompted top border officials to accuse Kelly of merely paying "lip service" to the topic while avoiding concrete action.

"That's the main concern right now—his voting record is in lockstep with Schumer, it's in lockstep with Biden," National Border Patrol Council president Brandon Judd told the Washington Free Beacon in November. "We continue to have to deal with this chaos at the border, and we're just not getting any support from the Democrats, and that includes Kelly."

According to an October Quinnipiac poll, just 23 percent of Americans support Biden's handling of the "situation at the Mexican border," while 67 percent disapprove. Independent voters also named immigration as their second-most leading issue going into next year's midterm elections.