The "War on Drugs" has always been inextricably linked with immigration, and a underlying fear of immigrants as drug smugglers. While the drug smuggling immigrant is a misguided archetype, as a recent study by the Center for Investigative Reporting shows: that 80% of all drug smugglers involve American citizens. That's 4 out of 5 busts. This statistic brings up new questions about the public perception of Latino immigrants and what draws American citizens to such dangerous and illegal activity. Public perception of Latino immigrants as the mainstay of the illegal drug trade is clearly overstated, and the economic recession seems to have made many Americans consider undesirable and dangerous economic activity suddenly viable.
Part of the reason so many are surprised by the fact that most drug smugglers crossing the border are American is related to bias. The statistics are surprising in no small part due to the negative public perception of Latinos in the United States. A Pew Center study done in 2012 found that over 30% of Americans believe more than half of Latino people in the United States are undocumented immigrants (the actual number is closer to 18%). It was only yesterday that the Associated Press discontinued the use of the phrase "illegal immigrant" in its reporting, an offensive phrase that has been used almost exclusively selectively and provoked violence against immigrants and people of color. While great progress has been made in terms of immigration equality and eradicating discrimination against people who are immigrants from all countries, is it any wonder that this statistic continues to surprise us?
But beyond questions of immigrant stereotypes, what makes American citizens interested in selling drugs in the first place? Tucson lawyer Jeffrey Bartolino said that drug trafficking is a safety net: many of those who cross the border are unemployed and in need of cash. Drug running, especially for older middle-aged people who avoid suspicion (unless a border officer happens to be a big fan of Walter White) can be a lucrative way to make up debt, especially as this group, the "sandwich generation," is hit particularly hard by joblessness. This of course is not to say that Mexican drug cartels are benign providers of economic stability: it is only to question what kind of country we live in where a illegal activity with a steep prison time is more viable safety net than the one provided by our government.
The prevalence of Americans who smuggle drugs is shocking, not in the least because of bias against immigrants and our perception of who engages in the drug trade. However, regardless of who is smuggling the drugs, it’s clear that more work must be done to effectively end the war on drugs and provide greater economic stability for all residents of the United States.