In Linking Immigration and Opioids, Trump Downplays Core Issues of the Epidemic

President Trump has touted his immigration and border-security plans as helpful to fighting the opioid crisis, but some experts think the idea is misguided.

A portion of border fence along the U.S.-Mexico border in Sunland Park, New Mexico
AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd
Erin Durkin
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Erin Durkin
Feb. 14, 2018, 8 p.m.

President Trump’s focus on immigration reform as part of the national response to America’s immense opioid problem has some experts concerned that this will take away the government’s focus on the central problems driving the epidemic, including prescription-drug abuse.

The president’s strategy on immigration reform and border security is getting some Senate floor time this week as lawmakers begin to debate the issue. The pillars of his plan include providing a way to citizenship for children who were brought to the U.S. illegally, eliminating the diversity visa lottery, limiting family-based immigration, and securing the border, including building a wall.

“These reforms will also support our response to the terrible crisis of opioid and drug addiction,” Trump told lawmakers during the State of the Union in January. He had made previous claims that a border wall would help stem the flow of drugs into the country.

But some experts and lawmakers say the link between the two issues—the opioid epidemic and immigration policy—is tenuous and won’t get to the core issues of the crisis.

“While the opioid crisis is a result of multiple systemic factors, nearly all the experts agree that it is an American-made problem that originates with our prescription-drug industry,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee.

The subcommittee is holding a hearing Thursday on sanctuary-city policies and the effects on the opioid epidemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that opioids killed more than 42,000 people in 2016, and 40 percent of all opioid-overdose deaths involve a prescription drug. Illegally-made fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is also driving an increase in the death toll.

Users typically don’t start with heroin or fentanyl but with prescription drugs, said Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, codirector of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center.

Pacula suggested that Trump’s conflation of the issues was more of a political move than a policy suggestion. “I think that it is a strategy of this president to link things together that he thinks will get people motivated for his agenda, whether or not they truly are or not,” she said.

But others argue the two issues are not separate. “It is indisputable that there is a link between immigration-enforcement failures and the availability of illicit opioids,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a hard-line group that favors strict immigration laws.

Vaughan, who is testifying at the Judiciary hearing Thursday, said that sanctuary-city policies can interfere with the country’s ability to tackle issues related to opioid trafficking and abuse. A so-called sanctuary city is a jurisdiction that has limited its cooperation with federal immigration-enforcement agents.

“Sanctuary policies, because they deliberately seek to thwart immigration enforcement and because they interfere with communication and cooperation between local law-enforcement agencies and federal law-enforcement agencies, are exacerbating the problem and disrupting our law-enforcement agencies’ ability to crack down on the drug traffickers,” she said.

Lofgren, however, argues that focusing on sanctuary cities will not help the crisis. “There is no connection between community-trust policies and the opioid epidemic,” the California Democrat said, noting that areas with high immigrant populations and urban community-trust policies experienced relatively low numbers of opioid deaths.

“The suggestion that mass deportation will solve the opioid crisis is absurd, and it derails a productive, bipartisan conversation on the opioid epidemic,” she added. “Numerous experts have concluded that we can’t arrest our way out of the opioid epidemic. I would add that we cannot deport our way out of it either. Even if we were to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, we would still have an opioid crisis on our hands.”

Increasing animosity between law enforcement and the local population could also hinder the ability of police to address drug problems. “One effect of pushing police departments to have very antagonistic relations with local populations is that of course people will be afraid to approach police,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a foreign policy senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Vaughan argued that this “so-called chilling effect” is a “myth that has been concocted to justify sanctuary policies.”

But Vaughan questioned the effectiveness of Trump’s proposed border wall in the context of the opioid epidemic.

“That’s not going to be enough. What we need is robust immigration enforcement within the country in the places where the drugs are hitting the street,” she said.

Vaughan said the wall, in the short term, may shut down operations where people are carrying drugs over the border. But traffickers are already employing other methods such as drones and submarines, she added.

“They’re nimble, this is so lucrative, and they have resources to do different things, often very sophisticated things,” she said.

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