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Misinformation fuels false hopes among migrants after deadly fire in Mexico

Rumors the U.S. would open its border after the fire in Mexico's migrant detention center are just one example of false information encouraging more activity at the border.
Migrants are processed by United States border patrol agents at the US-Mexico border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
U.S. Border Patrol agents process migrants at the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on Wednesday. Guillermo Arias / AFP - Getty Images

MEXICO CITY — Migrants stuck at Mexico's northern border for months hoping to get into the U.S. are becoming more vulnerable to misinformation after a deadly fire at a government-run detention center killed at least 39 people this week.

Over 1,000 migrants lined up outside international bridges to El Paso, Texas, on Wednesday afternoon after false information spread on social media and by word of mouth that the U.S. would allow them to enter the country.

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The migrants, most of them Venezuelans, "surrendered themselves" to U.S. authorities, El Paso Chief Patrol Agent Anthony "Scott" Good tweeted. Most migrants, including Venezuelans, won’t be allowed to seek asylum in the U.S. by crossing the border under current immigration policies.

The incident prompted the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juárez to share a social media post in Spanish telling migrants, "Do not let yourself be deceived."

“The rumors about the opening of the border after the tragedy in Ciudad Juárez are completely false. Law enforcement policies and security measures to restrict access to people without documents into the U.S. remain in effect,” the post said. “The border is closed for irregular migration!”

Over 1,000 migrants surrendered themselves to Border Patrol agents in El Paso, Texas.
Over 1,000 migrants surrendered themselves to Border Patrol agents in El Paso, Texas.@USBPChiefEPT via Twitter

The U.S. has expanded the use of a pandemic-related policy known as Title 42 to expel migrants who cross the border. On May 11, the policy will be replaced with one that largely bans asylum for anyone who travels through Mexico without having sought protection there first.

'You can't compete with hope'

Betty Camargo, the state programs director for the Border Network for Human Rights, said she was in touch with a migrant leading a group of others to the border Wednesday in hope of being allowed to enter the U.S.

The migrant told Camargo many of them felt angry, afraid and unsafe after the fire in Estancia Provisional de Ciudad Juárez killed 39 people and injured dozens more in one of the deadliest migrant tragedies near the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years.

“While we were trying to explain to them that the rumors are not true, sometimes you can’t compete with hope,” Camargo said.

It isn’t the first time misinformation has led a large number of migrants to show up at different ports of entry. Two weeks ago, large groups of migrants clashed with federal agents at the Paso Del Norte international bridge, also known as the Santa Fe Bridge, which connects Ciudad Juárez and El Paso.

At the time, Camilo Cruz, a spokesperson from the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency, attributed the congregation of migrants to a “rumor that they were going to let them pass en masse, especially those who arrived with children,” The Associated Press reported.

Blanca Navarrete, the director of Comprehensive Human Rights in Action, an organization in Ciudad Juárez providing services to migrants, said a Peruvian woman who had acted on the rumors stopped by her office Wednesday on her way to El Paso.

The woman and her young son had been walking for so long that the boy’s last pair of shoes had broken and he couldn’t keep going. Navarrete told the woman the rumors the U.S. was letting everyone in weren’t true.

Navarrete said the rumor started after an anonymous user posted the message in a Facebook group used by migrants trying to navigate CBP One, an app asylum-seekers need to use to first get pre-screened and then get appointments with specific dates and U.S. ports of entry. The message then spread on WhatsApp and by word of mouth.

Troubles with the CBP One app have also created a sense of hopelessness among many migrant families trying to get asylum appointments. Gabriela Muñoz Cano, a project manager for Las Americas Advocacy Center in Ciudad Juárez, said she has families who have been trying to get an appointment through the app since January.

As they run out of resources to stay safely in Ciudad Juárez, migrants are becoming more vulnerable to misinformation about getting to the U.S., Muñoz Cano said. Scammers posing as lawyers ask migrants for money to supposedly help them get appointment in the app, she said. Getting appointments through CBP One, however, is free.

'Many lies out there'

While Facebook can help migrants stay in touch and get information along their journeys, it's also where misinformation targeting migrants on the border flourishes, particularly in Spanish.

Last year, the Tech Transparency Project identified two Facebook groups, with the same moderator, that were generating "a steady stream of content targeting migrants in Mexico." It also found "an abundance of posts spreading misinformation about immigration law, conditions along the route to the United States, and the opportunities available to migrants to the U.S.," particularly on Facebook and WhatsApp.

That kind of misinformation reached the social media feed of Carmen González, 23, in Venezuela. González said she and other friends began their journey from Venezuela to Mexico after they saw a post falsely claiming Venezuelans could enter the U.S. without being deported.

“We always see things on Instagram and Facebook telling us to travel, that people are getting into the United States," González, now stranded in Ciudad Juárez, said in Spanish. "You get excited, and then you go on that trip, you struggle a lot and then they don't let you in.

“I tell people now not to believe what they read on Facebook, because many lies are told there,” she added.

People see things on social media, including accounts of people who "found out that something worked for someone," and start traveling "without immigration documentation and without plans," said Lorena Cano, the legal coordinator at the Institute for Women in Migration, a civil association defending migrant women's rights.

In February, large groups of migrants showed up at a specific mile marker near the U.S.-Canada border after false information emerged that both countries had reached an agreement and that the U.S. was going to bus migrants to Canada.

The misinformation appeared first on social media and was later spread, Camargo said, by someone who went to shelters and even by someone migrants described as an immigration official. When many of the migrants showed up at the mile marker, they realized it wasn’t true.

"They're playing with their livelihood," Camargo said. "Migrants are not only being stripped from their right to migrate — they are slowly being stripped of their hope."

Nicole Acevedo reported from New York and Albinson Linares from Mexico City.