Portman Presses Federal Witnesses on Increase in Fentanyl Coming Over Southern Border

WASHINGTON, DC – This afternoon, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, pressed federal witnesses on the increase in deadly narcotics, like fentanyl, coming into the United States over the southern border at a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Government Operations and Border Management hearing. Earlier this week, Portman released a statement on the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) operational statistics which show a 42 percent increase in fentanyl seizures at the southern border from September to October. Today, the CDC released preliminary data showing that from April 2020 to April 2021, drug overdose deaths in the United States rose to a record more than 100,000.

Portman has made it clear that the failure of this administration to control our southern border has resulted in record levels of deadly fentanyl coming into our country, leading to more American lives being lost, families devastated, and which has contributed to the growing strength of Mexican transnational criminal organizations. Portman has repeatedly urged the administration to change course and put in place smart policies that secure our borders and protect the American people from the influx of deadly narcotics like fentanyl.

A transcript of the questioning can be found below and a video can be found here

Portman: “Thank you very much, Senator Sinema, one, for having this hearing. You and Senator Lankford are the be commended for that. There’s so much going on at the border and so much need for oversight. Obviously, we’ve had some terrible statistics recently. We look at the month of October, and we had, we’re told the highest number of encounters with illegal immigrants in any October in the history of our country. So we are breaking records, it seems, every month. There’s clearly a crisis at the border. I would ask quickly if I could, and perhaps, Ms. Sabatino, you’re the right one to answer this, how many people got away? In other words, the so called getaway number. If you have, say, 164,000 people who have been apprehended or encounters, how many people do you think you’re not finding who are coming across the border illegally?” 

Diane Sabatino, Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner for Office of Field Operations at U.S. Customs and Border Protection: “I do not have that number, sir. That is something I will have to follow up and certainly get from our colleagues in the Border Patrol. We do work closely with our colleagues in the Border Patrol to assist them with resources as are available and as needed.” 

Portman: “The estimate that they’ve given me is that they think somewhere between 15 and 20 percent on top of that. But I’d be interested in any data you can provide us on that. Along with that, of course, we had terrible numbers this week with regard to this issue of overdoses of people in the United States who are taking opioids, and we looked more closely at it. It turns out almost all of these opioids are connected to fentanyl in some way or another. Sometimes it might be another drug, even heroin or a non-opioid like cocaine, but fentanyl mixed in with it or mixed in with a pill. And this fentanyl is killing more and more of our American citizens. 100,000 people died of overdoses between April 2020 and April 2021, we were just told in the last couple of days. That number, 100,000, has never been reached before. It’s a terrible record, and it indicates that so many Americans are succumbing to this fentanyl that’s so deadly that comes in primarily across the Mexican border. For a while, it was coming mostly from China. Now we know it’s coming mostly from Mexico. 

“So I looked at those numbers, and it turns out in October, we had a 42 percent increase in fentanyl seizures coming in over the border. And I know you are perhaps more focused on that in some respects, because much of this comes through the ports of entry, actually, but a 42 percent increase in this deadliest of drugs coming in over the southern border. Seems to me we have a national emergency here. Can you give us a sense of what you think the amount of drugs are that are coming in that are not being seized? If it’s 42 percent increase in seizures, what is it overall?” 

Ms. Sabatino: “I would have to do math on the fly, sir. And I apologize. I’m not equipped to do that. We can certainly follow up with estimates. We did seize, in the last fiscal year, over 10,000 pounds of fentanyl coming across to our ports of entry, over 9,000 pounds was in particular at the southwest border. So I think, with the investments that we’re making in technology, in particular, the NII deployments that we’re going to be doing over the next 18 to 24 months, and frankly, not quick enough. It’s going to help us certainly in that endeavor to tackle that challenge. But we also work very closely with our partners in HSI and other federal government partners, because the best we can do certainly is identify these networks that are bringing this to our ports of entry in deep concealments in either commodities or in private vehicles coming across the border. But the continued investment in resources like canine assets, but also our intelligence units that we are building out in conjunction with our Office of Intelligence in the National Capital region, to make sure that we’re providing our frontline staff with the best available information about these networks, how to identify these threats and recent concealment methods, but would also defer to my colleague with HSI as well with respect to the investigative efforts related to fentanyl.” 

Portman: “Well, thank you. And look, I appreciate what you’re doing. We have provided more resources for technology and for people and we should. It sounds like in the next couple of years we’ll have better technology. We saw some of this on the board earlier this year when some of us toured and the technology is good. But the one thing I would emphasize is that by allowing more of these drugs to come in across our southern border, more drugs are getting on the streets in our communities at a lower price. In other words, the increased supply is decreasing the price and making it easier for people to be able to afford these deadly drugs. So I am, for one, someone who believes strongly in dealing with the demand side of this – better prevention efforts, more treatment. We were making progress in that. Longer term recovery, we were making progress there. But unfortunately, in the last year and a half, we have seen this huge increase, and I think some of it is attributable to the fact that the volume is so high now and the price is so relatively depressed because of that that it’s creating more of a problem. Mr. Jeronimo, do you have an answer to this question about if we have a 42 percent increase, if we’re finding 9,000 pounds of this stuff, which, by the way, is enough to kill every man, woman, child in my home state of Ohio, it’s an enormous amount of fentanyl, 9,000 pounds. But do you, Mr. Jeronimo have a sense as to what we’re missing? In other words, how much of these deadly substances are coming in across our border and not being detected?” 

Joe Jeronimo, Deputy Assistant Director of Homeland Security Investigations at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement: “Sir I don’t have the answer to that particular question, but I will tell you HSI’s efforts, along with our partners. Last year alone, HSI seized over 40,000 pounds of fentanyl opiates to address this issue. It starts internationally, and we do have a vast presence overseas, 86 offices in 55 countries. But more importantly, we have our partnerships with our foreign counterparts through our Transnational Criminal Investigative Units, or TCIUs. They’re vetted units, and that allows us to operationalize information as they come in. I mentioned earlier to Senator Lankford that in the last 18 months, HSI in partnership with CBP and DEA, we seized over 500 kilograms of precursor chemicals coming into Mexico to be used by TCOs. That’s one million pounds of precursors.” 

Portman: “Were those precursors coming from China?” 

Mr. Jeronimo: “In most cases, yes, sir.” 

Portman: “And do you have an office in China?” 

Mr. Jeronimo: “We do have an attaché there, sir.” 

Portman: “You have an office there?” 

Mr. Jeronimo: “Yes, sir. We do have an attaché there. So, again, one million pounds of precursors. The other efforts that we made domestically and I mentioned this earlier was expanding our BESTs into the mail facilities, international mail facilities as well as the airports and what I would consider interior states like the state of Ohio. Our BESTs, our border security task force, have been traditionally along the southwest border, but we’ve expanded that at the exception of the opiate crisis, as well as focusing on the mechanisms for producing these. Pill presses, we have an operation called Die Another Day, which again, is in partnership with CBP, DEA, and US Postal Service, where we’re focused on the importation of pill presses that have used for a listed substances and production.” 

Portman: “My time is expiring here, and again, I thank you for what your officers are doing on the ground and in foreign countries. I will just make the obvious point. You said that there are all sorts of precursors coming from China into Mexico. So China is still very involved in this, even though there’s less coming directly from China. Thanks, I think, in large measure to the STOP Act, which this Subcommittee and Committee passed. But I think we need to make a point that this poison is coming in in record numbers despite all of your good efforts. So what do we need to do differently to be able to address this issue both on the subject side and the demand side. And again, I thank you for what you’re doing. You, by finding 9,000 pounds, are saving lives. There’s no question about it, but we need to do better. Thank you, Madam Chair.”