In recent weeks, migrants waiting in various northern Mexican cities have been told to travel to other locations along the border under the false pretense that they’ll be let into the US through a port of entry there, immigration attorneys tell CNN.
Other messages, shared via the popular messaging app WhatsApp, have falsely told migrants who fall under the Trump administration’s so-called “remain in Mexico” policy that they’ll be allowed to enter the US on a certain date and directed them to present themselves to border officials on that date.
Misinformation is spreading along the US-Mexico border, through smugglers or word of mouth, among migrants desperate for answers from the Biden administration, undermining the administration’s plans for the US-Mexico border and fueling confusion in border communities.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki warned Wednesday that changes will take time.
“Now is not the time to come,” Psaki said, citing the pandemic and ongoing efforts to put in place a comprehensive process. “The vast majority of people will be turned away. Asylum processes at the border will not occur immediately, will take time to implement.”
In the interim, there’s little clarity on what happens next, leaving room for smugglers to relay their messages.
“Misinformation by smugglers is a problem. They’re salesmen,” said John Sandweg, a former senior Homeland Security official under the Obama administration. “The longer those people are sitting there where they’re in this purgatory, the more likely it is that those people are going to be lured by coyotes to come across,” he added, referring to smugglers who are sometimes also called “coyotes.”
Rumors take hold
Joe Biden kicked off his presidency signing a series of immigration executive orders calling for the rollback of his predecessor’s hardline policies. But in the absence of information on when new policies take effect, rumors have taken hold, leaving immigrant advocates and attorneys going up against a billion-dollar smuggling industry.
“The rumors are debilitating to morale for both (attorneys) and the migrants,” said Jodi Goodwin, an immigration lawyer who represents clients forced to stay in Mexico.
It’s commonplace for smugglers to lie to migrants to sell their services, but years of Trump policies that left thousands waiting on the US southern border has resulted in networks operating only miles from the United States, according to Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, associate professor at George Mason University who studies migrant smuggling networks. That presents an urgent challenge to the Biden administration.
“More and more, now you see specialized migrant smuggling networks operating at the border,” Correa-Cabrera said.
Under the Trump administration, migrants from Central America and other parts of the world who were seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border were forced to remain in Mexico until their immigration court hearings in the United States. Many stayed along the border where they’d have to present for their court hearings.
While it’s difficult to know exactly how many people are waiting to be admitted along the southern border, there are more than 22,700 cases pending in courts hearing these cases along the border, according to the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin which released a report on the program.
There are also migrants along the border who have been kicked back under a public health order put in place under Trump that allows for the swift expulsion of migrants, as well as recent arrivals, creating a tenuous situation along the border. Migrants can be easily identified based on their accents or attire and as a result, fall prey to gangs and corrupt authorities, among others.
With the change in administrations, came hope that people waiting for months, if not years, might be able to claim asylum in the US and be allowed in.
During the transition between administrations, officials recognized that migrant’s expectations of the Biden administration were vulnerable to being shaped by smugglers, according to a source familiar with the discussions. “The statement that Susan (Rice) and Jake (Sullivan) made in December reflects the knowledge that human smuggling networks were going to prey on people,” the source said.
Rice and Sullivan did an interview with a Spanish-language media outlet that published in December cautioning that changes along the US-Mexico border would take time.
The Department of Homeland Security, which only days ago got its secretary, has been working around the clock to set up an orderly process for the admission of migrants at the US-Mexico border, taking into account coronavirus precautions. This week, Customs and Border Protection announced the opening of a soft-sided facility in Donna, Texas, to expand processing capacity.
‘They can literally see the United States’
While the administration sets up processes, people on the other side of the US border are desperate.
“We’re not looking at people in Latin America, South America, who are thinking now is the time to migrate. It’s people who are already there,” said Taylor Levy, an immigration attorney based in California who works with migrants along the southern border. “They’re so close, they can literally see the United States.”
Levy gets dozens of messages daily from migrants through Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp trying to get clarification on what the Biden administration’s plans are. She also posts videos on Facebook to provide updates about what’s happening on the border, with the caveat that she doesn’t work for the US government and therefore has limited information. One video posted earlier this month had more than 300 comments from people reiterating hope, expressing frustration, or sharing what they heard on the ground.
It’s unclear whether misinformation is driving an uptick in border apprehensions. But a recent change in Mexican law resulting in the release of some migrant families into the US created more confusion and frustrated the many people who are still waiting after being subject to a Trump-era policy.
“I don’t have any way to explain why or how or what are the next steps. It’s getting to the point where people are very frustrated with you,” Levy said, adding that smugglers are tapping into the frustration migrants are feeling.
Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that some migrants will be processed for removal in the US.
“Per longstanding practice, when long-term holding solutions aren’t possible, some migrants will be processed for removal, provided a Notice to Appear, and released into the U.S. to await a future immigration hearing,” the statement reads. “As the Administration reviews the current immigration process, balancing it against the ongoing pandemic, we will continue to use all current authorities to avoid keeping individuals in a congregate setting for any length of time.”
The Biden administration has tried to temper expectations on how quickly they can reverse the previous administration’s policies, but that too can work against them. In some cases, smugglers will offer their services as a faster way to come to the US instead of waiting, according to Correa-Cabrera.
“People are not doing this because they think that the border is going to open to them but because of an expectation that once they’re in they’ll be treated with more respect,” Correa-Cabrera said.
Immigrant advocates and attorneys, meanwhile, are trying to strike a delicate balance of offering hope, while urging patience.
“The issue here is until they figure it themselves, what the right strategy is, that void is going to be filled by others,” said Jennifer Quigley, director of refugee advocacy at Human Rights First.