News & Politics

Hudson Valley Republicans are framing the fentanyl crisis as a border issue. Experts say that’s inaccurate.

Tying the opioid epidemic to sanctuary policies may be an effective political strategy, but calling them the main driver of the opioid crisis is false.

In August, Assembly Member Colin Schmitt toured the southern border.

In August, Assembly Member Colin Schmitt toured the southern border. Colin Schmitt for Congress

While campaigning for competitive congressional seats in the Hudson Valley, Republican Assembly Members Mike Lawler and Colin Schmitt have framed the ongoing opioid crisis as an immigration issue: blaming an influx of fentanyl on Democratic policies at the southern border.

“The failure of Biden and (Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick) Maloney’s open border policy has been a dramatic increase in dangerous and illegal fentanyl pouring across the border and into our communities in New York and across the country. This has only exacerbated the existing heroin and addiction crises gripping towns and counties across the Hudson Valley,” Lawler’s campaign website states.

It’s true U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows there are increased fentanyl seizures at the border, but the amount is still not enough to drive the crisis. David Bier, associate director of immigration studies at the right-leaning think tank the Cato Institute, said the idea that fentanyl is coming from the southern border and driving the opioid crisis is wrong and referred to it as a “politically convenient narrative”. Bier pointed to data that showed 86.2% of convicted fentanyl drug traffickers in 2021 were American citizens, and seizures from people illegally crossing the border were far lower.

“Fentanyl comes to the United States through the U.S./Mexico border, that's true. But it mainly almost entirely comes through legal ports of entry,” said Bier. “It's legal travelers coming into the United States who are bringing the fentanyl and the drugs in their baggage, on their person, or in their vehicle.” 

David Carlucci, former Hudson Valley Democratic state senator and co-chair of the overdose and addiction task force, said linking the opioid crisis to immigration is a red herring that is a step back in the fight against addiction. “Politicians are not really looking at the logical data. These are emotionally charged issues and to link the two is politically charged,” Carlucci said.

The opioid crisis has been an issue across the country and New York state for years – particularly in the Hudson Valley, where Lawler and Schmitt are running. The state’s Department of Health’s annual opioid report found Sullivan, Dutchess, Orange and Ulster Counties had among the highest numbers of opioid deaths in 2019. Then in 2020, the opioid crisis went from bad to worse at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, opioid overdose deaths in the Hudson Valley have been increasing at an alarming rate and even surpassed pre-pandemic levels. 

Political experts all agree that the opioid crisis in the Hudson Valley and across the state deserves attention, and candidates should have a plan of action to tackle it. Ann-Marie Foster, president and chief executive officer of the drug and alcohol treatment center Phoenix House, underscored the severity of the crisis while noting the issue transcends party lines. “Addiction and substance abuse is something that every fabric of our society – rich, poor, Black, white, gay, straight – are all struggling with,” Foster said. “People need to recognize this is not a partisan issue.”

Schmitt has placed much of the blame for the fentanyl crisis on a wide range of seemingly unrelated policies supported by his 18th Congressional District Democratic opponent – accusing Rep. Pat Ryan of contributing to the fentanyl crisis by supporting pro-immigrant policies such as the state’s Excluded Worker Fund. Schmitt called on the federal government to do more for the crisis in a statement to City & State. “The first action we must take is to secure our southern border where 100% of illicit fentanyl poison is trafficked and exported from the border right into the Hudson Valley,” Schmitt wrote. 

Similarly, in the 17th Congressional District race against Maloney, Lawler has made securing the southern border and immigration key platforms of his campaign, while asserting Democrats have a border policy that has “exacerbated the existing heroin and addiction crises.” In a statement to City & State, a spokesperson for the campaign confirmed Lawler is planning a press conference about opioids in the coming days. 

In an interview with City & State, Lawler clarified that he doesn’t think the southern border is the only thing driving the fentanyl issue in communities. The Assembly member also pointed to drug dealing within communities and prescription drugs as top drivers of the crisis, but still said it’s important to secure the border.

“It is a contributing factor, and why wouldn't we want to prevent it? Even if we saved one life by securing our border – that's one life. That is a value, and that should be saved. To allow drugs to continue to pour across our southern border, I can't imagine why somebody would think that is a good thing.”

Lynn Krogh, a Republican consultant with The Casale Group, said candidates highlighting the opioid crisis is a smart strategy because Hudson Valley communities have been greatly impacted by the opioid crisis. Krogh said the strategy of localizing a national issue will work with voters – whether or not drugs are directly linked to the southern border. “(Mike Lawler) takes the national issues that everyone can talk about, like border security, and he brings it locally, so people understand the impact – i.e. fentanyl coming over the border is contributing to our opioid crisis,” Krogh said of Lawler’s strategy.

The opioid crisis is a concern for Hudson Valley voters heading into the polls on Election Day. Krogh underscored why it’s particularly concerning for families yearning for safety. “There are parents right now who are concerned with their children going out on Halloween. Parents used to check for needles and razor blades in candy. Now they're checking for fentanyl,” said Krogh.