When people think of drug smugglers, they often imagine illegal immigrants sneaking into the United States across the southwest border. But the reality is that the vast majority of drug smuggling occurs at ports of entry (including airports), and the vast majority of traffickers are U.S. citizens. According to data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, U.S. citizens had 77 percent of federal drug trafficking convictions in 2018. This percentage has grown from 69 percent in 2012. As Figure 1 shows, the share of drug traffickers who were illegal immigrants fell from 21 percent in 2012 to 16 percent in 2018.
The reason that drug traffickers are largely U.S. citizens is because most drug trafficking occurs at ports of entry because most drugs—other than marijuana—are easier to conceal in legal luggage than while crossing the Rio Grande or the desserts in Arizona. Figure 2 shows the location where Customs and Border Protection seizes drugs by drug type. Port officers seized between 80 and 90 percent of every major drug type except for marijuana. Even there, officers at ports made nearly half of all the seizures so far in 2019.
Congress should not treat illegal immigrants as if they dominate drug trafficking nor should it focus drug interdiction resources between ports of entry where little drug trafficking takes place. The only thing that has reduced drug trafficking at all has been legalization of marijuana at the state level, which shifted supply away from Mexico and to the United States.
Note on comparisons: While 16 percent of trafficking convictions is about five times illegal noncitizens’ share of the U.S. population, this is not an appropriate comparison because the criminal offense inherently involves movement between two countries, so the relevant population includes people residing on both sides of the border. This means that the potential pool of undocumented noncitizen drug smugglers is vastly greater than the 10.5 million illegal residents already living in the United States.
Any of the 7.5 billion undocumented noncitizens around the world could decide tomorrow to attempt to bring drugs into the United States. Only 2,910 were convicted of doing so. That’s 0.00004 percent of all undocumented noncitizens worldwide. By comparison, 14,146 of the approximately 310 million U.S. citizens did so or 0.005 percent.
Obviously, this exercise doesn’t really tell us much, but the bottom line is that these conviction figures cannot be used to say how likely it is for undocumented noncitizens who are in the United States to be convicted a drug trafficking offense. That is not the point of this post. The point is to dispel the myths that undocumented noncitizens control most drug trafficking to the United States and that traffickers rely primarily on illegal immigration between ports of entry to bring drugs to this country.
-Update added 7/8/2019