- Thousands of migrants, mostly from Central America, have come to the US border with Mexico in recent months.
- Many of those migrants left home after hearing that a new US president would make migration easier.
- But rumors about lax immigration policy are being stoked by smugglers and bigger geopolitical foes, US officials say.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Ciudad Juarez, MEXICO – Thousands of migrants, mostly from Central America, have left their homes in recent months to head north, relying on what smugglers and local news sites were announcing: A new US administration has opened the doors for all migrants.
US officials say the increase in migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border over the past two months is a response to rumors of a “more humane” immigration policy and “disinformation” spread by smugglers.
“I certainly think that the idea that a more humane policy would be in place may have driven people to make that decision,” Amb. Roberta Jacobson, White House coordinator for the southern border, said at a briefing on March 10.
“But perhaps, more importantly, it definitely drove smugglers to express disinformation – to spread disinformation about what was now possible, and we know that,” Jacobson added.
Carlos, a Honduran man, left his hometown exactly one month ago. He traveled all the way to the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas with his 5-year-old child. His main goal was to enter the US illegally and work so he could send money to his sick wife.
“The guides [smugglers] told me in Honduras that they will let me in if I brought my kid along, that they were letting in everybody with children,” he told Insider.
But instead he was robbed during the journey and after crossing the border was quickly expelled to Mexico.
“I’m going back to Honduras,” Carlos said in an interview at the Pan de Vida shelter in Ciudad Juarez. “It was all a lie from the guides. I gave them all my money to save my wife, and now I’ll have to get back empty-handed.”
At three of the main shelters visited by Insider in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, dozens of families faced the same situation.
María, a woman from Guatemala also traveled with her 2- and 6-year-old daughters, arrived to find the border was not open, despite what smugglers told her in Guatemala.
“They told me they have heard in the news that the US was letting in women with small children, because this new president was trying to be better than Trump. But they didn’t even let us speak. They just sent us straight back to Mexico,” Maria said at El Buen Samaritano shelter.
A smuggler interviewed near the border wall on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez said they are not spreading disinformation to migrants.
“It’s just what we hear,” the smuggler said.
“We are not trying to disinform migrants. It is what we are hearing in the news and from the same migrants. For example, we know now that they are not allowing people outside the [Migrant Protection Protocol], but they are allowing children alone, and that’s all the message we pass along,” he told Insider.
Smugglers might not be all to blame. Disinformation campaigns in Central America have been targeting migrants to discredit the US, some US government officials say.
“The disinformation by Russia seeks to discredit every act of goodness, and we do many, that the United States provides in the hemisphere, and to the extent that drives migration there’s no doubt,” Adm. Craig Faller, who oversees US military operations in the region as head of Southern Command, told Congress in March.
Although none of the migrants interviewed in Ciudad Juarez pointed directly at Russian media outlets, many of them cited local news sites that actively repost articles from Russian state outlet RT en Español.
Sites like Noticias de Honduras, Radio América Honduras and Publinews Guatemala, among others, were constantly cited by migrants interviewed by Insider when asked where they were learning of new developments at the border.
Most of these news sites have more than 300,000 followers on Facebook on average and frequently repost RT en Español articles, mostly about Biden’s administration and immigration developments at the border.
Faller also noted that these Russian media outlets target Spanish-speaking populations.
“Outside the Russian language, their Spanish-language social media is their biggest effort, and they increased it three-fold last year, particularly trying to discredit everything the United States did to help our partners recover from the pandemic,” Faller told lawmakers this month.
Since the end of the Trump administration, smugglers from the US-Mexico border to Central America have been spreading news and speculation about what immigration policies would be under Biden.
A smuggler interviewed in November 2019 said his organization was expecting Biden to loosen immigration vigilance at the border and allow them to grow their illicit income.
“We have a Facebook page and a WhatsApp group where we post news, so immigrants know we are not lying to them, so they can trust us,” the smuggler told Insider at the time.
Jenn Budd, a former Border Patrol agent turned whistleblower, said there is another group spreading disinformation and “intentionally looking to harm” Biden’s administration.
“Border Patrol [agents] never stopped supporting Trump. They are keeping in bed with him, and they are doing a lot to discredit this new administration,” Budd said.
But Budd said this was an “orchestrated set up” by Biden’s detractors.
“When I saw the video I had no doubt that there is a disinformation campaign orchestrated by Border Patrol,” Budd said. “Right now, the Border Patrol is creating two crisis scenarios at once for political reasons.”
“As a former agent, what I hear is these men possibly talking about paying this smuggler off to gather a bunch of unsuspecting migrants and have them cross in a particular place in order to get this shot,” Budd said of the scene filmed by CNN.
As news and rumors flow around the border and to Central America, migrants remain confused and exposed to abuse.
“I just hope me and my son won’t have to go through the same [experience] we went on our way north,” Carlos said. “We were robbed, kidnapped, and extorted several times during our whole trip, and for what? For a lie someone said to me in Honduras. I feel like a fool.”
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