On the final leg of his journey between Chile and the United States, Haitian Fabricio Jean followed the detailed instructions WhatsApp sent him from his brother from New Jersey, who had recently traveled on the road to the Texas border.
His brother sent him money for the trip and explained the exact route, warning him of the areas where the Mexican immigration authorities were most present.
You will need about 20,000 pesos (about $1,000) for the buses. “You’ll have to take this bus to this place and then take another bus,” said Jan, who spoke to the Associated Press after arriving in the border city of Del Rio.
What he did not expect was to find thousands of Haitian immigrants, like him, crossing the same remote place. Jane, 38, his wife and two children joined nearly 14,000 people, mostly Haitians, who were staying under a bridge in Del Rio earlier this month.
Combined factors that led to the sudden increase of immigrants in this Texas city of about 35,000 residents. Interviews with dozens of Haitian immigrants, lawyers, and activists reveal a phenomenon that resulted in part from confusion over the Joe Biden government’s policies after authorities recently extended protections to more than 100,000 Haitians living in the United States.
It also reflects the power of Facebook, YouTube and platforms such as WhatsApp that migrants use to share information that could be distorted as it is transmitted between immigrant communities, and to direct migration flows. This is particularly evident in tight-knit groups such as Haitians, many of whom left their country after the devastating 2010 earthquake and have lived in Latin America ever since, drawn by the economic booms of the time in Brazil and Chile.
The White House has cited security concerns and turmoil in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere to provide protection for its citizens this spring.
National Security Minister Alejandro Mallorcas emphasized that the temporary measures were limited to residents in the country before July 29, a detail usually overlooked in leaflets, leading Haitians outside the United States to believe they could also benefit.
Mayorcas acknowledged the situation this week and said “we are very concerned that Haitians who follow the irregular migration route are being misinformed that the borders are open” or that they may be eligible for protection despite the expiry of the term.
“I want to make sure that it is known that this is not the way to come to the United States,” he added.
Thousands of Haitians have been stranded in Mexican border cities since 2016, when the administration of former President Barack Obama abruptly suspended a policy that initially allowed them to enter the country on humanitarian grounds.
The emails promoting the Mexican city of Ciudad Acuña, versus Del Rio, began after Joe Biden took office and began reversing some of the immigration policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump.
Ciudad Acuña has survived the violence of drug smuggling and cartels that plagues other parts of the border. Some of the posts she recommends on social media appear to come from people smugglers looking to do business, according to immigrant advocates.
Haitians began crossing there this year, but the number rose after the end of a government program that briefly opened the door to some asylum seekers, according to Nicole Phillips of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a San Diego-based group that advocates for Haitian immigrants. The program allowed entry to a select group who, according to humanitarian associations, were at high risk in Mexico.
Phillips added that as soon as he stopped in August, people panicked and messages appeared recommending Ciudad Acuña,
“That’s why they came here to cross,” he said. “They realized that they could not enter legally through any other port of entry as they had expected.”
Del Rio is just one example of how the technology that has put the smartphone in the hands of nearly all immigrants is altering migration flows, according to activists. Now they often monitor the news and share information about the routes. The most popular platform is WhatsApp, which connects 2 billion people around the world.
The first great example on the continent was in the fall of 2018, when social networks managed to bring together more than 10,000 people who formed unprecedented convoys that crossed the southern border of Mexico. They arrived at the border with the United States, especially Tijuana, encouraged by promises of action made by then-elected Mexican president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
In 2020, after Turkey announced the opening of its land border with Greece, thousands of migrants who went there found that the doors on the Greek side were still closed. Something similar happened in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in North Africa this spring when Moroccan guards let thousands of people pass into Spain, which was quick to return.
Last week, in a Facebook group for Haitians in Chile with 26,000 members, one of them posted specific instructions on ways to cross Mexico. It included ways to avoid them and recommended specific bus companies.
Read the post, written in Haitian Creole, “Good luck and be careful.”
Another user shared a different route in the comments. Since then, members of the group have shared stories about the dire conditions in Del Rio and the threat of deportation.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) found that most of the 238 Haitians surveyed in March after crossing the 100 kilometers (60 miles) of the jungle between Colombia and Panama known as Darien, received information about the dangerous path from their relatives. Or friends who have done it before.
About 15% said they had seen the instructions online.
According to the agency’s spokesman, Jorge Gallo, the guidelines led the migrants to believe that crossing the jungle was “difficult but not impossible”.
But just as the letters led many Haitians to Del Rio, the news that the Biden administration was deporting hundreds on the Texas border caused their plans to change.
A 32-year-old woman who came to Texas with her two teenage children bought bus tickets to Mexico City after receiving a WhatsApp voice message from her cousin. He had previously lived in Chile for four years.
“Wait in Mexico until the end of this month. They will catch everyone from under the bridge. After that, they will give me the contact to enter Miami,” said the Creole recording he showed to an Associated Press reporter. The Associated Press has not released the woman’s name for her safety.
Facebook Inc. , which owns the WhatsApp application, allows its users to share information about border crossings, even if they are illegal, but its policy prohibits posts that ask for money for services that facilitate human trafficking.
Rubens Exile said he and his pregnant wife, who left Brazil when he lost his job in the midst of the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, headed to Tijuana, Mexico, instead of turning to the warnings of their fellow citizens on YouTube and WhatsApp.
Many Haitians are now advised not to come to Acuña. They say it is no longer a good place.”
On Wednesday, 33-year-old Antonio Pierre, who was camping in Del Rio with his wife and daughter, was listening to the news on a friend’s cell phone.
“The US is releasing some, but only a few,” he said, referring to US officials who told the AP the day before that thousands of detained Haitians had been released with an appointment to appear before immigration authorities, contrary to the government’s announcement. That every person in the settlement will be deported to his own country.
Nelson Santell, his wife and their four children returned to Mexico after camping in Texas and waited for news of where they should go to avoid deportation.
“I don’t want to be like a rat that doesn’t realize it’s getting caught,” he said. “Because to go back to Haiti to bury someone alive.”
Watson reported from San Diego. Associated Press reporter Amanda Seitz in Columbus, Ohio, and researchers from the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Human Rights Investigative Laboratory, and the Investigative Reporting Program contributed to this report.
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