Stop Scapegoating Immigrants for the Fentanyl-Involved Overdose Crisis

October 16, 2023

As the United States continues to grapple with a devastating opioid-involved overdose crisis, conservative policymakers have seized on a familiar scapegoat: immigrants.

Republican leaders and presidential candidates falsely claim that undocumented Black and Brown migrants and asylum-seekers crossing the southern border are responsible for flooding America’s streets with fentanyl.

This pernicious lie both distracts from evidence-based responses and causes direct harm to immigrant communities still reeling from the unjust attacks that characterized the Trump administration.

The vast majority of fentanyl entering the country is smuggled through official ports of entry—not bypassing them.

In fact, according to Customs and Border Protection data, the vast majority of fentanyl entering the country is smuggled through official ports of entry—not bypassing them. And most is brought in by US citizens.

Willfully ignoring these realities, Republicans disingenuously argue that harsher immigration enforcement and border security will stem the flow of fentanyl. This reflects both the drug-war “logic” that criminalizing drugs curbs use, and harsh Prevention Through Deterrence (PTD) immigration policies that have militarized the border with deadly consequences. Doubling down on these failed policy choices will do nothing to reduce overdose deaths, while inflicting damage on marginalized groups and eroding US Latinos’ sense of belonging.

This scapegoating is not new.

Throughout US history, immigrants have been falsely associated with drugs as a means to enact exclusionary policies. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was facilitated by linking Chinese immigrants to opium use. The prohibition of cannabis, and even the adoption of the term “marijuana,” were tied to racist campaigns against Mexicans.

My family is deeply familiar with the implications of being labeled “drug smugglers” and “dealers.”

I’m a grandson of Cubans who faced similar scapegoating when they sought asylum in the US, following Fidel Castro’s rise to power in the 1960s. They continued to face it once settled, particularly during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. So my family is deeply familiar with the implications of being labeled “drug smugglers” and “dealers.”

Just as Mexicans were conflated with marijuana, Cubans have been tied to cocaine and associated with fearful misrepresentations, like Al Pacino’s portrayal of Tony Montana in Scarface.

While such associations are typically false, it’s also time to rethink the stigma placed upon people who do sell drugs, as the Drug Policy Alliance has articulated. In the absence of economic opportunity and lack of meaningful integration, many people, including some of immigrant backgrounds, may do so to survive and support their families. Does this make them evil? By no means.

The realities and pressures of people’s lives are far more complicated than the caricatures depicted by immigration and drug policy hardliners. This is also something I have had to reckon with in my own family. My father served seven years in federal prison for grand larceny and cocaine distribution, actions connected to his gambling addiction. Between a long trial and several years of probation, my family’s involvement with the criminal-legal system spanned half of my life.

As a drug policy reform advocate, it is clear to me that demonizing and persecuting drug users and low-level sellers does nothing to address root causes of risky drug use or addiction. On the contrary, racialized policing of Black, Brown, Indigenous and immigrant populations can further entrench cycles of poverty, puts people at greater risk of overdose when released from carceral settings, and has not made meaningful reductions in problematic substance use.

For many decades, enforcement and punishment have failed to solve anything, while inflicting severe additional harms. Not only advocates but academic scholars have long pointed out the gaping flaws in this approach. The profit paradox means that criminalization of the drug trade actually inflates the value of drugs, incentivizing trafficking when greater risks mean higher rewards. The Iron Law of Prohibition brings ever more potent drugs to unregulated markets—today fentanyl, tomorrow something else.

I see it as critical that we do not allow drug-war rhetoric and policies to negatively affect immigration policy.

In my past research and advocacy at Human Rights Watch (HRW), I came to better understand the scale of the intersectional issues involved in the so-called War on Drugs and its acute, disparate impacts on populations subject to vulnerabilities.

A 2016 report by HRW and the American Civil Liberties Union found that someone in the US was arrested every 25 seconds for simple cannabis possession, and that despite using drugs at similar rates to white people, Black adults were more than two-and-a-half times likelier to be arrested for possession. A prior report documented the tens of thousands of immigrants with deep ties to the US who had been separated from their families over minor drug arrests.

Now a policy specialist at the Im/migrant Well-Being Scholar Collaborative, I see it as critical that we do not allow drug-war rhetoric and policies to negatively affect immigration policy and the wellbeing of immigrant communities.

The overdose crisis demands compassion and public health solutions, not more war on people. Evidence shows us what will save lives: increased access to naloxone and medications for opioid use disorder, safe supply programs, overdose prevention centers and, ultimately, an end to the drug war and the damaging mechanisms of prohibition.

The GOP aims to exploit tragedy for political gain.  

Recklessly or maliciously conflating fentanyl with immigration leads to harsher enforcement tactics in the 100-mile border enforcement zone, shown to erode a sense of belonging even for US-citizen children of immigrants—and to barbaric policies like Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star. Conservative leaders in other states have meanwhile slashed funding for substance use treatment.

Immigrants fleeing violence and persecution—conditions that are often fueled by US foreign policies—deserve asylum, not baseless associations with drug smuggling. The billions spent on immigration enforcement each year should fund a welcoming immigration system for asylum-seekers.

Ultimately, the GOP’s immigrant-scapegoating rhetoric aims to exploit tragedy for political gain—using fear to win support for harmful policies, and spreading dangerous misdiagnoses of the overdose and border crises.

Our shared humanity demands an approach rooted in compassion, public health and human rights—with no place for fearmongering, racism and xenophobia.  



Photograph of US-Mexico border via RawPixel/Public Domain

Thomas J. Rachko, Jr.

Thomas serves as a research-to-policy implementation specialist at the Im/migrant Well-Being Scholar Collaborative. There, he works alongside affiliate scholars to translate academic research in accessible ways for policymakers, advocates and activists to make evidence-based change. Thomas was previously a policy officer in the US Program at Human Rights Watch, focused on research and advocacy on criminal justice, drug policy and immigration. In 2016-2017, he was New York City Urban Fellow. From The Bronx, New York, he now lives in Washington, DC.

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