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Mixed Messaging And Misinformation Is Creating Confusion At The U.S.-Mexico Border

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Biden administration faces a huge logistical and humanitarian challenge on the southwest border with Mexico. Five thousand unauthorized migrants cross on average every day. About half are allowed to stay in the U.S. to ask for asylum; the rest are turned back. Now a new wrinkle - some places in Mexico won't accept them, so they are put on planes in search of border towns that will. Angela Kocherga of member station KTEP in El Paso reports.

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: On the busy Paso del Norte International Bridge, a dazed group of about 40 people, mostly parents with young children, have just been ushered across the border line to the Mexican side by U.S. immigration agents.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD COOING)

KOCHERGA: Multiple people ask me where they are.

(Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: The group is more than 800 miles from where they had originally crossed the border into South Texas a few days ago. They say they were put on a plane that morning but not told where they were going. They landed in El Paso, were bussed to the International Bridge and now are back in Mexico.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: Jerry Oyedo, a young father from Honduras, says he crossed the Rio Grande with his wife and two daughters, ages 8 and 6. As he tries to borrow a cellphone to call relatives in Georgia, his older daughter crouches down and vomits on the pavement.

(SOUNDBITE OF RINGTONE)

KOCHERGA: A street vendor on the bridge watching the scene hands out free water for the children. A mother sits on the ground outside Mexico's immigration office and breastfeeds her baby.

DANIEL MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: There's no space in the shelter, says Daniel Martinez. He works with Mexico's federal government to provide aid. He and two co-workers tried to calm the migrants. But by now, confusion has turned to desperation, and the migrants with cellphones make frantic calls.

SURI MALDONADO: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: Suri Maldonado says she felt tricked. The 27-year-old mother traveled from Guatemala with her toddler and crossed into South Texas. U.S. officials could not return them to Mexico because authorities on that stretch of border aren't taking Central Americans back. So they were put on a plane to El Paso. Daily flights carry up to 300 migrants from one end of Texas to the other.

MALDONADO: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: Maldonado says back home in Guatemala, she was told the U.S. border was open. Most of these migrants have paid what they call a guide - actually a smuggler - to get them up to the border and across. Misinformation spread by smuggling organizations is helping spur this surge in migration from Central America. Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera is an expert on organized crime and immigration at George Mason University. She says smuggling networks are reassuring people...

GUADALUPE CORREA-CABRERA: You're going to be able to get in. And this is exactly what they are telling them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

KOCHERGA: In radio ads in both Spanish and Indigenous languages, the Biden administration has tried to counter that narrative, telling would-be migrants in Central America the border is largely closed during the pandemic. But it's a mixed message because the administration is allowing migrant children and some asylum-seekers to cross. Meanwhile, smugglers are aggressively marketing to migrants who are desperate to escape poverty, violence and corruption, with testimonials from people who say they reached the U.S. and are doing well.

CORREA-CABRERA: Social media allows people to know that others have been able to make it. And this is the selfie - I am here. I am in the States. I am in the city.

KOCHERGA: But there are no selfies by migrants stranded on the Paso del Norte Bridge, like Ana Vasquez and her 5-year-old son.

ANA VASQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: She says she fled El Salvador after her husband was murdered. She and her son crossed into El Paso last week, but the Border Patrol turned them back. They've been living on the streets in Juarez.

VASQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: For now, she's relying on her faith and the kindness of strangers, who gave her some snacks for Rudy, her son.

RUDY: Mama? Mama?

KOCHERGA: He keeps asking, Mama, when can we go home?

For NPR News, I'm Angela Kocherga in Ciudad Juarez. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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