President Joe Biden and members of his administration have said on news programs that migrants hoping to gain asylum in the U.S. should stay home for a while. But that’s not the message that’s getting through.
Maritza Hernández arrived in a remote Guatemalan village exhausted, with two young kids in tow and more than a thousand miles left to travel. She was motivated by a simple – if not entirely accurate – story.
“I heard news they are letting children in,” said Hernández, explaining she planned to cross the U.S. border in Texas and seek asylum.
The number of immigrant families apprehended by U.S. agents along the southern border nearly tripled in February from a month earlier to about 19,000 people. Hunger and poverty are spurring their flight. So is disinformation that has rocketed across social media and by word of mouth that the U.S. border is now wide open.
Reuters interviewed nearly two dozen migrants and more than a dozen people identifying themselves as smugglers and examined hundreds of posts in closed Facebook groups where these “coyotes” advertise their services. The review revealed pervasive myths about immigration policy changes under U.S. President Joe Biden.
“There’s 100 days of free passage across the border,” a Guatemalan smuggler told Reuters.
The truth is much more complex.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) continues to enforce a policy, implemented by former President Donald Trump one year ago, of returning most southern-border crossers to Mexico. About 70,000 people, or 72% of such migrants – mostly single adults – were rapidly deported in February alone, according to CBP data. Some of those people were likely repeat-crossers as the recidivism rate has climbed in the past year, according to U.S. officials.
On the other hand, more migrants – mainly children and families – have been allowed to enter the United States in the early days of his administration than in the final days of Trump’s. In February, more than half of the family members caught with children at the border were not expelled. Many have been released from CBP custody into the United States as they await asylum hearings.
Their success has supercharged migrant and smuggler communication channels, with many now urging travelers to head north before the door slams shut, said Andrew Seele, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington-based think tank.
Since January, the State Department has placed more than 28,000 radio ads in Spanish, Portuguese and six indigenous languages on 133 stations in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Brazil, and it has worked with Facebook and Instagram to create advertisements to dissuade migrants, according to the department and the White House.
Whether it works remains to be seen. Trump’s anti-immigration message was loud and clear. Yet on his watch in February 2019, U.S. border agents encountered more than 40,000 people traveling in family groups, about twice as many as the Biden administration saw last month, according to CBP figures.