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Washington — In his second State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Biden is slated to outline a series of actions the federal government is taking to crack down on the smuggling of fentanyl along the southern border, where Mexican cartels have sought to traffic thousands of pounds of the deadly synthetic opioid into the U.S. over the past year alone.
Mr. Biden is expected to argue his administration is disrupting the trafficking of fentanyl into the U.S. by increasing scanning technology at official border crossings, broadening the government’s collaboration with delivery companies to identify suspicious packages and enlisting the help of other countries in curbing overseas production of the drug, the White House said.
The president will also urge Congress to pass a law that would increase criminal penalties for traffickers who alter the chemical makeup of fentanyl in hopes of evading federal regulation and prosecution, the White House added in a preview of the president’s remarks.
In recent years, deaths stemming from fentanyl have reached record levels, creating a national public health crisis and a political flashpoint in Washington, D.C., where politicians have clashed over what steps the federal government should take to stop the drug from killing Americans. A man whose daughter died of an opioid overdose in 2014 is among the guests who will attend the speech and sit in the first lady’s viewing box.
In 2021, the last year with available statistics, roughly 90% of 80,000 opioid-related deaths in the U.S. involved fentanyl, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Most illicit fentanyl is smuggled into the U.S. across the southern border. Cartels and other criminal groups in Mexico have turned the production of the synthetic opioid into a vast clandestine operation that has become the primary source of fentanyl in the U.S., according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.
In fiscal year 2022, a 12-month time span that ended last October, U.S. officials along the Mexican border seized more than 14,000 pounds of fentanyl, a record, federal statistics show. The vast majority of the seized fentanyl — 84% — was detected by officers at ports of entry who screen cars and commercial trucks.
According to the White House, Mr. Biden will announce Tuesday that his administration is working to set up 124 additional vehicle scanners at ports of entry along the southern border to better detect illegal drugs. The effort is expected to increase the percentage of vehicles screened at ports of entry to 40% for passenger cars and 70% for cargo vehicles, up from the current 2% and 17% screening rates, respectively.
Mr. Biden’s remarks on the fentanyl crisis will come amid intensifying criticism from Republican lawmakers, who have sought to link the issue with the record number of migrant apprehensions reported along the southern border over the past two years.
In fiscal year 2022, U.S. authorities processed migrants nearly 2.4 million times along the Mexican border, a record high. The Biden administration’s handling of a historic influx of illegal border crossings, Republican lawmakers have claimed, has allowed fentanyl to be smuggled into the U.S. at higher rates and fueled the opioid crisis.
The Biden administration and Democrats have rejected the connection, citing the statistics that show most fentanyl is seized at ports of entry, where the drug is often smuggled by American citizens and permanent residents who have permission to enter the U.S. Record numbers of fentanyl seizures along the southern border, they have also argued, show that efforts to intercept the drug have improved.
“The facts show we’re seizing a lot more fentanyl,” California Democratic Rep. Katie Porter said during a congressional hearing on border issues Tuesday. “For me, as a mom, that is a sign of success. I don’t want that fentanyl in this country. It is dangerous and it kills people.”
Mr. Biden’s plans to crack down on fentanyl and reduce opioid overdoses form one of the four pillars of his “unity agenda,” which the White House said includes policy areas “where members of both parties can come together and make additional progress for the American people.”
Republicans have argued that the record migrant arrivals have diverted border officials from focusing on intercepting illicit drugs. They’ve also claimed that some migrants who evade apprehension by Border Patrol in between the ports of entry could be smuggling fentanyl.
“This claim of 90% at the ports of entry is unknown compared to the got-aways, because we don’t know what they were carrying, because they got away, right?” Republican Rep. Scott Perry said during a House Oversight Committee hearing Tuesday, using a term to describe migrants who are seen entering the U.S. illegally but not captured.
Responding to pointed questions from Democrats and Republicans during the hearing, John Modlin, the top Border Patrol agent in the Tucson sector, tried to offer a more practical view of fentanyl smuggling.
“I don’t and I don’t believe any of my agents care where it comes through. As long as it enters the United States, then it’s certainly a threat to the children of the United States, to everyone that has the potential ability to overdose,” Modlin said. “Regardless of if it’s between the ports or at the ports, it’s a threat.”