WhatsApp, Social Posts Helped Bring Haitian Migrants to Texas


DEL RIO, Texas (AP) – For the final leg of his journey from Chile to the United States, Haitian migrant Fabricio Jean followed step-by-step instructions sent to him via WhatsApp by his brother from New Jersey who had recently taken the Texas border road. .

His brother wired him money for the trip, then meticulously mapped it out, warning him of areas rich in Mexican immigration officials.

“You will need around 20,000 pesos (around 1,000 US dollars) for the buses. You have to take that bus to there and then take another bus, ”said Jean, who spoke to The Associated Press after reaching the border town of Del Rio.

What Jean did not expect was to find thousands of Haitian migrants like him crossing in the same remote place. The 38-year-old man, his wife and two young children joined earlier this month as many as 14,000 migrants, mostly Haitians, camped under a bridge in Del Rio.

A confluence of factors caused the city of Texas to surge suddenly of about 35,000 residents. Interviews with dozens of Haitian migrants, lawyers and immigration advocates reveal phenomenon produced in part by confusion over Biden administration policies after authorities recently extended protection to more than 100,000 Haitians living in the United States.

It also reflects the power of Facebook, YouTube, and platforms like WhatsApp, which migrants use to share information that can be distorted as it passes through immigrant communities, directing migration flows. This is especially true for tight-knit groups like Creole and Francophone Haitians, many of whom left their homelands after the devastating 2010 earthquake and lived in Latin America, drawn to the once thriving economies of Brazil and Chile.

In extending protections to Haitians this spring, the Biden administration spoke of security concerns and social unrest in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said temporary protections were limited to those who resided in the United States before July 29 – but this condition was often lacking in posts, leading Haitians outside the United States to believe that they too were eligible.

Mayorkas acknowledged that this week, stating “we are very concerned that Haitians who use the irregular migration route are receiving false information that the border is open” or that they may claim protected status despite the expiration of the time limit.

“I want to make sure people know that this is not the way to come to the United States,” he said.

Thousands of Haitians were stuck in Mexican border towns since 2016, when the Obama administration abruptly halted a policy that initially allowed them to enter on humanitarian grounds.

The online posts touting the Mexican town of Ciudad Acuña, across from Del Rio, began after President Joe Biden took office and began to reverse some of the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

Ciudad Acuña has been spared the drugs and gang violence seen elsewhere along the border. According to immigrant advocates, some of the social media posts recommending it appear to have come from smugglers looking to do business.

Haitians started crossing there this year, but their numbers skyrocketed after a Biden administration program ended that briefly opened the door to some asylum seekers, said Nicole Phillips, of the Haitian Bridge Alliance. , based in San Diego, which defends Haitian migrants. The program has helped a number of people considered by humanitarian groups to be at high risk in Mexico.

Once that stopped in August, people panicked and posts recommending Ciudad Acuña “went viral,” Phillips said.

“That’s why they rushed at that time to get in,” she said. “They realized they couldn’t legally enter through an entry point as they hoped.”

Del Rio is just one example of how the technology that put a smartphone in the hands of nearly all migrants is transforming migration flows, advocates say. Migrants often monitor the news and share information on routes. The most popular platform is WhatsApp, which connects 2 billion people around the world.

In 2020, after Turkey announced the opening of the land border with Greece, thousands of migrants headed there – only to find the gates closed on the Greek side. Something similar happened this spring in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, North Africa, when thousands of people were allowed to cross from Morocco to Spain, promptly returning most of them.

Last week, in a Facebook group for Haitians in Chile with 26,000 members, a member posted specific directions on routes through Mexico. It had paths to avoid and recommended certain bus companies.

“Good luck and be careful,” the post, written in Haitian Creole, said.

Another member shared a different route in the comments. Members of the group have since relayed stories of horrific conditions in Del Rio and the risk of eviction.

The International Organization for Migration found that most of the 238 Haitians interviewed in March after crossing a 100-kilometer stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama, known as the Darien Gap, received information on their route. from their family or friends who had made the dangerous journey.

About 15% said they had seen instructions on the Internet.

Agency spokesman Jorge Gallo said the instructions had led migrants to believe crossing the ditch was “difficult but not impossible”.

But just as similar messages have drawn many Haitians to Del Rio, news that the Biden administration has deported hundreds of people to the Texas border has caused some to change their plans.

A 32-year-old Haitian woman who traveled to Del Rio with her two teenage boys bought bus tickets to Mexico City after receiving a cousin’s audio message via WhatsApp. She previously lived in Chile for four years.

“Wait in Mexico until the end of this month. They will pick up everyone under the bridge. After that, they will give me the contact to enter Miami, ”said the recording in Creole, which she played for an AP reporter. The PA withholds the woman’s name to protect her safety.

Facebook Inc., which owns WhatsApp, allows people to exchange information about crossing borders, even illegally, but its policy prohibits posts that ask for money for services that facilitate human trafficking.

Robins Exile said he and his pregnant wife, who left Brazil after losing her job amid the pandemic-ravaged economy, headed to Tijuana, Mexico instead after seeing warnings via YouTube and WhatsApp from other Haitian migrants.

“Many Haitians now advise against coming to Acuña. They say it’s not a good place anymore, ”he said.

Antonio Pierre, 33, who was camping in Del Rio with his wife and daughter on Wednesday listened to the news on his friend’s cell phone.

“The United States is releasing a few, but only a few,” he said, referring to US officials who told the PA Tuesday that thousands of Haitians in detention were released and ordered to report to an immigration office, contradicting the Biden administration’s announcement that all Haitians camped in the city would be deported to Haiti.

Nelson Saintil, his wife and four children had camped in Texas but returned to Mexico waiting to know where to go next to avoid deportation.

“I don’t want to be like mice that don’t find out they’re falling into a trap,” he said. “Because to return to Haiti is to bury a living person. “


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