Lawmakers Push a Bipartisan Effort to Protect Frontline Feds as Opioid Seizures Skyrocket
Seizures of the potentially lethal substance by federal personnel has quadrupled in the last two years.
Lawmakers in both parties are looking to provide front-line federal personnel extra layers of protections against fentanyl and other potentially lethal substances, as an influx of the synthetic opioid has continued to place unprecedented pressures on employees at ports of entry.
Customs and Border Protection seized more than 11,000 pounds of fentanyl in fiscal 2021, according to recently released agency data, more than doubling the total from the previous year and quadrupling it from fiscal 2019. The agency is on pace to easily set a new record this year. The surge puts CBP employees at additional risk, as just a small amount barely perceptible to the naked eye can prove deadly.
While CBP provides employees who screen for illicit substances with personal protective equipment, lawmakers are looking to ensure secondary defenses against the drug. The Prevent Exposure to Narcotics and Toxics (PREVENT) Act (H.R. 5274) would require the agency to issue “containment devices” to its front-line staff and train the workers on how to properly use them. The devices create a controlled, negative pressure environment to store the substances, while also allowing for better preservation for investigative purposes. The House Homeland Security Committee recently approved the PREVENT Act unanimously.
“It’s critical that we provide our CBP officers with the tools and training necessary to do their jobs as safely as possible amid this record-breaking surge of drug trafficking,” said Rep. Dave Joyce, R-Ohio, who introduced the bill. He called for quick action on the House floor “so that we can protect our CBP officers as they work to defend and maintain our borders.”
CBP is statutorily required to have Naloxone, or Narcan—a drug used to treat opioid overdose—available to all officers at risk of exposure to fentanyl. A 2019 inspector general’s report, however, found the agency had not always made it available and lacked a policy requiring it.
At a House hearing last week, Pete Flores, executive assistant commissioner for CBP’s Office of Field Operations, said CBP has boosted its efforts to find and seize fentanyl by training all of its canine teams on opioid detection, providing field testing devices to CBP officers and having scientists on call 24 hours a day to review data. Flores said his office is working closely with federal partners. CBP is responsible for screenings at ports of entry and inspecting the packages at the U.S. Postal Service’s international mail facilities, though investigations can involve Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, the Drug Enforcement Agency, USPS’ Postal Inspection Service and other federal offices. USPS, CBP and other agencies have collaborated to develop new technology to help customs officers better detect illicit drugs in the mail.
President Trump in 2018 signed the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act into law, which aimed to require foreign countries to provide "advanced electronic data" on all international packages before they reached the United States. While the requirement for the information about the contents of the packages had long been in place for private sector carriers like UPS and FedEx, the mandate did not apply to shipments through USPS. Congress passed the law as the opioid epidemic was ravaging communities throughout the country and international traffickers—primarily from China—were increasingly using the U.S. Postal Service to send synthetic opioids like fentanyl to American customers.
USPS, CBP and the State Department have still not fully implemented the law, giving exemptions to nearly 100 countries. Still, it appeared to have a dramatic impact. Compared to 2018, seizures of synthetic opioids through the mail dropped by 71% and 93% in 2019 and 2020, respectively. The law appears to be having unintended consequences as well, however. After it went into effect, about 97% of interdictions were taking place in the domestic mail stream, and officials said they were increasingly finding substances like fentanyl at the southwest border.
“It’s like a balloon,” Robert Cintron, vice president for logistics at USPS, said at a 2020 hearing. “You squeeze it in one end and it just comes out the other end.”
Many Republicans have pointed to the unprecedented surge in fentanyl seizure to further their calls that the Biden administration leave in place a pandemic-era policy that has immediately expelled most undocumented immigrants. The authority, known as Title 42 and in place ostensibly to limit the spread of COVID-19, was set to expire Monday but a federal judge recently forced the administration to temporarily leave it in place. While its expiration is expected to result in a large uptick of immigrants arriving at the border, several agency officials told lawmakers last week that there was no connection between changes in migratory patterns and drug trafficking.