WASHINGTON — House Republicans on Wednesday blamed immigration at the southern border for an increasing number of fentanyl deaths, stepping up their criticisms of Biden administration policies and calling for stricter regulations and more surveillance at the border.

During a hearing by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Federal Government Surveillance, Chairman Andy Biggs, R-Ariz.. and other lawmakers zeroed in on the role of Mexican cartels and Chinese manufacturers in counterfeit drug trafficking.

“Last year, we seized about 700 pounds of fentanyl” along the Arizona border, Biggs said. “That’s enough to kill everyone in Arizona 21 times, or half the population of the United States. The majority of that was encountered in the field, being backpacked across the border.”

The committee directed a number of national security questions to Derek Maltz, who worked with the Special Operations Division at the Drug Enforcement Administration. Maltz, who retired after 28 years with the agency, said he gained significant knowledge of Mexican cartels during his tenure with the DEA.

He stressed this is not the same drug crisis as 10 years ago or in the 1990s. Instead, Maltz labeled fentanyl as a national security crisis.

“The president should immediately declare a national security and public health emergency,” Maltz said. “They [the cartels] need to be held accountable, even if it means using our U.S. military.” He noted that the cartels are “killing more Americans than any terrorist organization,” including Al Qaeda and ISIS.

During a separate oversight hearing Wednesday, Attorney General Merrick Garland also was asked about what the administration was doing to prevent fentanyl from entering the country.

“We have a huge epidemic of [a] fentanyl problem created by intentional acts by the cartels,” Garland told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We are doing everything we can within our resources to fight that.”

Although House Democrats tried to avoid conflating migration across the southern border with the problem, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, condemned the Trump administration’s focus on building a wall across the southern border while a fentanyl crisis exploded throughout the United States.

Jackson Lee praised the Biden administration’s recent collaboration with the Mexican government, which aims to stop people in China and India from creating chemical precursors to fentanyl and sending them to Mexican cartels.

“The Biden administration and Congress have both taken decisive steps to address the scourge and disrupt the supply chain of fentanyl,” Jackson Lee said. “We are giving them the resources they need to be the Superman, Batman and the mighty man.”

Jackson Lee said the Biden administration invested in advanced inspection technology to help detect fentanyl at the border in this year’s spending bill.

She emphasized the importance of education in ending the fentanyl crisis in the United States. She said she intends to introduce a bill that provides funding for teachers to give lessons about adverse effects of drugs.

She added a particular need exists to raise awareness of the dangers of fake prescription pills, noting that the cartels have mastered creating fake bills that resemble prescription oxycontin.

“We can disrupt the flow of things and also reduce the demand [for counterfeit pills,” Jackson Lee said. “For far too long, this country has chosen the wrong approach for parents, families and communities. Addiction treatment is a difficult and challenging path that impacts all of our communities.”

Some of the most gut-wrenching testimony came from Erin Rachwal, of Wisconsin, who lost her son to fentanyl poisoning in his freshman year of college.

“Fentanyl is now the leading cause of death in the United States for people ages 18 to 45, and it’s only getting younger,” Rachwal said. “These are the ages when young adults like Logan should be thriving and excelling. But, instead, thousands of them are dying. Death leaves no opportunity to recover.”

Rachwal is a licensed clinical therapist and runs the Love, Logan Foundation, a nonprofit named for her son that aims to increase support and education about fentanyl and end stigma around mental health and drug addiction.

She encouraged Congress to pursue education campaigns to combat the opioid crisis. Rachwal said she met with 120 young children Tuesday as part of an education initiative, and 98% of them hadn’t heard about fentanyl or Narcan, the brand name of a drug containing naloxone that can be used to treat overdoses.

Maltz said families like the Rachwal’s should not be using their own money to erect billboard messages and travel to raise awareness.

“Protecting kids must be number one,” he said, arguing that social media and other tools should be harnessed to reach children. “You have to keep seeing if the death rate has slowed down. And if not, you have to change.”

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