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Editorial: Drug trade didn’t stop its flow when checkpoints closed

It’s a bit like closing the barn door after the horses took off running, but after months of closure, the Border Patrol is again operating several highway checkpoints in New Mexico and Texas that have been key to intercepting massive illegal drug shipments in the past.

That’s good news.

But it’s no thanks to New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who helped precipitate those checkpoints’ temporary abandonment in March.

A recap: CBP regularly staffs six checkpoints on major highways radiating from the El Paso-Juárez border. They’re situated far past the border itself, and vehicle searches at those checkpoints frequently yield smuggled cargo before drivers can get it into the rest of the country. Agents at highway checkpoints across the country seized more than 41,000 pounds of cocaine, 6,000 pounds of fentanyl and large amounts of other drugs in 2018.

As waves of Central and South American migrants arriving at the southern border of the U.S. started to ramp up, CBP’s agents in the region were overwhelmed, prompting President Trump to ask then-Gov. Susana Martinez to deploy New Mexico National Guard troops to provide logistical support, a request the Republican governor quickly complied with last year.

The highly politicized border situation has been ugly and getting uglier for months – some would argue years – but the bit of political theater that followed in February on the heels of Lujan Grisham’s inauguration was unnecessary and unhelpful. The newly sworn-in governor, to cheers from progressives across the country, moved swiftly to thumb her nose at the president by recalling the guardsmen.

But, unfortunately, the action was really thumbing a nose at New Mexicans of all political stripes. In March, CBP took its agents away from the checkpoints and sent them to help with the influx of migrants seeking asylum as they crossed the border – leaving the checkpoints just another exit for drug smugglers to drive past en route to Chicago, Los Angeles, Albuquerque, etc.

Otero County declared a state of emergency, and officials in the border community fruitlessly begged the governor to consider redeploying the guardsmen.

On the national stage, any chance at border policy compromise between the right and the left seems to have withered away. Under Trump’s controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy, the number of asylum seekers crossing at the border and giving themselves up to CBP seems to have dwindled, and it’s that decrease that has allowed CBP to recall enough agents to restaff the checkpoints.

The U.S. has a long way to go to figure out a workable system for dealing with the migrant crisis. The “Remain in Mexico” policy is a short-term fix that causes even more hardship for immigrants, whose future is just as much in limbo waiting in Mexico as it would be waiting in a U.S. border detention cell or living in the shadows here.

It’s a dire situation, and one Congress needs to reckon with. But it’s not the only crisis the U.S. is facing – drug addiction is ravaging our country far more swiftly than even the toxic political climate. And we have to wonder: How many doses of fentanyl, heroin and meth flew down our highways past abandoned checkpoints while our politicians wasted time posturing?

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.