The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Are drug seizures at the border good or bad? Depends on the president.

Suspected methamphetamine seized after smugglers tried to float it across the border from Nogales, Mexico. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection/AP)
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Late Sunday evening, the official Twitter account of the Republican Party published an excited message.

“11,007 pounds of methamphetamine was seized at the southern border in April alone!” it read.

Now, there are two ways to read this. One is to read it as celebratory: Just think of all those drugs that were prevented from entering the country! The other is accusatory: Look how many drugs people are trying to bring in!

In the abstract, the former makes a bit more sense. But in this specific case, of course, we know from the broader context what’s meant: The GOP is suggesting that President Biden is failing at controlling the border.

But, then, that’s not always what they meant with similar tweets when the president was Donald Trump.

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Consider this tweet, from June 2020 as Trump was seeking reelection.

Look at the volume of drugs that was stopped! Good news, to be sure … because it bolstered a point about Trump.

But when Trump triggered a government shutdown at the end of 2018 in an effort to obtain money to build that wall, seizures were again used as a mark of failure.

Trump himself did the same thing on another border-related issue. When he took office, the low number of people stopped at the border was a regular feature of his boasts about the effectiveness of his policies. But when apprehensions began to climb … that became a feature of his boasts about how robust a barrier he had erected at the border.

Since Biden took office, of course, there has been no waffling. Drug seizures are always framed as bad by the GOP — even when the data are relatively good.

Take this tweet, for example.

In May 2021, there were 38,600 pounds of drugs seized at the border. It’s worth noting, by the way, that most of these stops occur at legal entry points. For smugglers, it’s easier to drive in a lot of drugs and hope to avoid detection than to scramble a small amount of drugs through unprotected areas. That was up from 31,900 the month before, a 21 percent increase. (Customs and Border Protection adjusts its numbers over time, probably explaining the difference with the GOP tweet.)

But May’s total was down more than 20 percent from February 2021. And the seizure in May was lower than in every single month of 2020, when Trump was president.

It’s worth looking at the total amount of drugs seized at the border over time. You can see that the amount of drugs being seized during Biden’s administration has been lower than during the tail end of Trump’s. (The gray bars on the top chart below indicate all other illegal drugs besides those at the bottom. The dotted line marks Biden’s inauguration.)

(Note that the four lower charts use different vertical axes to show change for that drug over time.)

The recent decline is largely a function of a drop in marijuana seizures. Fentanyl seizures have risen since the middle of 2020. It is also a favorite target of the GOP’s rhetoric, given both that increase and the role of the drug in the public conversation.

If we compare the 16 months of Biden’s administration for which we have data with the last 16 months of Trump’s, the number of seizures has generally declined. Under Trump, nearly twice the total amount of drugs was seized (by weight), including three times as much marijuana and nearly twice as much heroin. Under Biden, nearly two times as much fentanyl has been seized.

Is this a mark of Biden’s failure? His success? The key question, of course, is the hard-to-answer one: How much of the inflow of illegal drugs isn’t halted at the border. Or, relatedly, how good a measure of effectiveness are those seizure numbers?

Such nuances don’t work well when a political party is tweeting. So we know their answer: The seizures are bad, because Biden. Should a Republican win in 2024, one could suspect that view might change.

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