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Republicans Are Blaming Sanctuary Cities for the Opioid Crisis. Here’s What’s Really Happening.


Republicans in Congress have found yet another evil to blame on immigrants and “sanctuary” cities: the worsening opioid epidemic.

At a House Judiciary Committee this month, GOP speakers criticized so-called sanctuary policies, which limit how police can cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in deporting undocumented immigrants. They argued these policies are hamstringing law enforcement, allowing opioids to flood through the U.S.-Mexico border and undocumented drug dealers to wreak havoc on society.

“Our public safety and our public health are tied to eradicating opioids, which can never be accomplished when the force multiplier that is ICE is sidelined,” said Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.

The immigrant-scapegoating can be summed up in this exchange between Labrador and Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center:

Labrador: “Do you believe that law enforcement can cut off a large segment of the illegal opioid market through federal and local immigration cooperation?”

Vaughan: “Yes, indeed, since the vast majority of the illicit opioids that are being trafficked are being brought in by foreign organizations. If we could improve border security in a variety of ways – also, importantly, interior immigration enforcement and go after them where they are doing the distribution, which is all over the country. By taking out these organizations and the people who staff them, that would make a big dent in the availability of the opioids in our communities.”

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Detective Nick Rogers, president of the Denver Police Protective Association, attempted to testify in support of ICE-police cooperation but unconsciously discounted his own position.

Rogers said he began to see a rise in heroin use in 2006. Most users were middle-class whites who originally took their parents’ leftover pain pills, while most dealers were undocumented individuals from south of the border, he claimed.

“I began to see a disturbing trend,” Rogers said. “I started to arrest the same parties twice.” He would arrest a dealer, then contact ICE, which would put an immigration detainer on the dealer and often deport him. Months or a year later, Rogers would arrest the same dealer under a different I.D., contact ICE, and repeat the process. “[ICE] often found that the person they were interviewing had been deported before; sometimes they had been deported several times,” Rogers testified.

Then in October 2017, Rogers says Denver enacted an ordinance that hindered his ability to cooperate with ICE. “This ordinance has created, in my opinion, a city that is much less safe than it was prior to this ordinance,” he said.

But by Rogers’ own testimony, cooperating with ICE was useless in reducing the drug trade and making the city safer.

As some Democratic committee members pointed out, the sanctuary-opioid accusation is a red herring.

“I am confused about why our House Immigration Subcommittee is having a hearing on something that has no factual basis in connecting so-called sanctuary city policies with the opioid crisis when there is a massive debate raging on immigration issues on the Senate floor, when 800,000 DREAMers face deportation in a few weeks, and when this committee has yet to raise any bill related to protecting DREAMers,” stated Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). “But I forgot that there are some people in this body… that really delight in scapegoating immigrants.”

In fact, ground zero for the opioid epidemic is “rural areas that don’t have sanctuary cities and indeed generally don’t have cities at all,” Dr. Keith Humphreys of the Stanford University School of Medicine testified. “Recent immigrants are rare, yet opioid addiction is rampant.”

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From 2000 to 2016, more than 600,000 people died from drug overdoses in the U.S., and approximately 66 percent of those involved an opioid. Around 115 Americans die each day from an opioid overdose.

Why is it happening? Many reasons, of course, but here’s the biggest: 75 percent of people with an opioid addiction started on prescription painkillers. Sales of prescription opioids in the U.S. nearly quadrupled between 1999 and 2014. In 2012 alone, Americans received more than 255 million opioid prescriptions. That’s several million more prescriptions than there were adults in the country.

The typical “dealer” who hooks people on opioids is not an undocumented immigrant but a doctor or pharmacist, often working for an illegitimate “pill mill.”

Once opioid addicts become tolerant to prescription drugs (some of which, like fentanyl, are 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin), they need to take more and more drugs. But that’s expensive, so they often turn to the much cheaper heroin and fentanyl sold on the streets. Most fentanyl is made in China (which the U.S. government is not properly regulating) and mailed directly to the U.S. or trafficked through Mexico.

The pharmaceutical industry – a.k.a. Big Pharma – spends tens of millions of dollars annually advertising opioids in medical journals and other outlets. It has widely accused doctors of undertreating pain and pressured them to prescribe more painkillers. And it funded Congresspeople to encourage them to pass a law in 2016 that hamstrings the Drug Enforcement Administration from prosecuting large drug companies that funnel prescription narcotics onto the streets and into the hands of corrupt doctors.

The chief advocates of that law were Republicans.

If politicians really cared about solving the drug epidemic instead of gaining supporters by vilifying immigrants, maybe they shouldn’t have hobbled the Drug Enforcement Administration from going after the biggest sources of drugs.

“The opioid epidemic was made in America, not in Mexico, China, or any other foreign country,” Humphreys said in the hearing. “Prescription opioids come from American companies, are prescribed by American doctors, overseen by American regulators. Arresting heroin dealers from other nations will thus never eliminate the root of our problem.”