Recently I visited the southern U.S. border to see the situation firsthand. I spent time with agents from U.S. Customs, Border Patrol, and Drug Enforcement Administration. I toured ports of entry and unsecured areas from the air and on the ground. It was an eye-opening experience. The situation there is nothing less than a crisis impacting Montana directly.
Throughout Montana, law enforcement officers are increasingly encountering meth. Since at least 2010, the number of meth cases sent to the state crime lab for analysis has increased steadily.
We know today’s meth is smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico, where “super labs” produce it in mass quantities, inexpensively and at high purity levels. When it gets to Montana, meth drives domestic violence, child abuse, theft, and other crimes against persons and property. Nearly half of all placements in our foster care system are from situations of parental meth use.
The results are as clear as they are devastating: lives destroyed, families shattered, communities ravaged, and public services strained.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, enforcement actions on the southern border for this past May were 632% higher than May 2017 and 206% higher than the May average over the past seven years. Customs encountered more than 140,000 illegal migrants in May alone. That is more than the population of Montana’s largest city crossing the border illegally in just one month.
The agencies protecting our borders lack the staff, resources, facilities, and legal authority to address a crisis of this magnitude. To divert resources to the southern border, Customs has closed inland screening checkpoints and moved resources from the northern border. Both changes reduce their ability to intercept illegal drugs.
The migrant and security crises are linked. Mexican cartels and smugglers are as adept at trafficking people are meth. The more migrants flood our southern border, the more resources law enforcement must redirect from screening and security. In fact, they have closed immigration checkpoints on highway arterials miles from the border to divert personnel to deal with managing and caring for people. These checkpoints were once instrumental in interdicting illegal drugs, but smugglers now have a clear path to anywhere in the U.S., even Montana, after crossing the border.
Recent federal legislation will bring much-needed resources to the agencies protecting our borders and caring for the thousands of migrants who cross illegally each month, but more must be done. Congress and the president need to break the gridlock and work toward reforming our immigration system to address the weaknesses and loopholes in U.S. law, and the unsecured portions of our border with Mexico, that exacerbate the migrant and security crises.
In Montana, we must continue to combat substance abuse on both the supply and demand sides. Parents, educators, policymakers, churches, nonprofits, health-care professionals, and all who have a role to play in educating people should be at the table to implement best practices for prevention.
We also need more treatment options. This past legislative session, I brought a bill to expand and create a steady funding stream for drug treatment courts. Treatment courts are a proven alternative to incarceration for many in our justice system who struggle with substance abuse. This year’s legislation is a step in the right direction, but it cannot be the final step.
While prevention and treatment are critical, law enforcement will continue to play a role. We need to ensure our local, county, and state agencies have the tools they need to intercept drug shipments coming into Montana. Through our Highway Patrol interdiction teams and collaborative local-state-federal partnerships such as Project Safe Neighborhoods, we have seized significant quantities of illegal drugs and taken a toll on many of the trafficking rings that operate in Montana. That work must continue.
The crisis at the southern border reaches into the heart of Montana. For too long, Congress has kicked the can on immigration and border security reform while we pay the price of their inaction. How many more lives will be ruined or lost, here and at the border, before they act?
Tim Fox is Montana’s Attorney General. He running as a Republican in the 2020 election for Montana governor.