As a drug crisis has moved Kensington to the center of a debate on how best to treat addiction, we've largely failed to see the connection to the crisis taking place on America's southern border.
Right now in the heart of Kensington, a throng of homeless heroin addicts is gathered beneath a bridge on Emerald Street, where nearby drug dealers linger and a community helplessly watches. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, America's southern border is embroiled in a battle pitting homeless migrants against border guards with guns and tear gas.
The two problems seem worlds apart, but they are intricately connected. That's because much of the heroin and fentanyl that is killing addicts in Philadelphia comes in through America's borders. Yet America's political focus is on stopping the influx of brown immigrants rather than stopping the flow of drugs. Our social focus is on enabling addicts to continue using rather than helping them to end their drug dependence.
In short, our priorities are dangerously misplaced, and in the end it could cost us dearly.
In order to understand just how hopelessly intertwined our drug crisis and our border issues are, one must first understand that neither problem happened overnight. They are both grounded in the historical morass of race and class in America, and, because they took years to emerge from the ashes of our troubled past, neither problem will go away overnight.
The tensions on America's southern border stretch back to a time when nearly all of what we now know as the American Southwest was part of Mexico. Texas fought and won a war for independence from Mexico in 1836, making Texas a separate republic, and, when the U.S. officially annexed Texas in 1845, war broke out, and America prevailed.
In 1848, the U.S. acquired parts of Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Nevada as part of a peace deal. In exchange, the U.S. made a token payment of $15 million. Many of the Mexican citizens who lived on those lands remained, but their differences in race, ethnicity, and language were always a sticking point for white America. They remain a source of tension today.
What we now see on the U.S. southern border is a study in irony. South and Central Americans who now seek to cross into the U.S. are actually returning to the land of their ancestors. But their bid to escape from poverty and violence has been met with open hostility.
Children in diapers have been tear-gassed. Families have been separated. People returning to the land they once held have been characterized as murderous invaders.
In truth, the migrants are the least of our problems at the border. Our true problem is the drug trafficking that has helped to turn American cities and towns into places where death waits in needles.
Fentanyl — a synthetic drug that is 50 times more potent than heroin — is being shipped to America from China. The drug plays a role in thousands of overdoses in places such as Kensington and beyond. Heroin produced in the poppy fields of Afghanistan — where America has spent $1 trillion fighting a seemingly endless war — still makes its way into the U.S. Tunnels from Mexico allow drug cartels to endlessly ship drugs across our border. And in Colombia, narcotics traffickers use ships and even rudimentary submarines to ship drugs to the U.S.
There has been more attention on the problem of addiction since it was revealed that nearly 80 percent of those who died from drug overdoses in 2016 were white. And while I'm disappointed — no, angered — that it took that kind of information to make fighting addiction a priority, I'm concerned about our reaction to that news.
Some in the medical and activist community have begun advocating for the use of supervised injection sites — places where people can shoot drugs in the presence of medical personnel to avoid overdoses. I disagree with that method. As a recovering addict who is 22 years clean, it's my assertion that we should be trying to get people off drugs, not helping them to continue to use a substance that deteriorates their brain and plunges them further into addiction.
If we truly care about the homeless drug addicts living under the bridge in Kensington, we must realize that our border fight is not against the homeless migrants making their way here from Central America.
Our fight at the border must be about stopping the flow of drugs that are killing thousands of Americans. Our fight at home must be about helping people not to shoot drugs.
If we can win those battles against the enemy that is addiction, perhaps one day we'll finally win the war.