Human smugglers are openly advertising their services on Facebook, falsely telling Central Americans interested in crossing illegally into the United States that they can promise a “100 percent” safe journey.
While the use of social media by smugglers is not new, the practice is growing, fueling false hope as more migrants fall prey to misinformation about how the Biden administration will welcome them, according to Department of Homeland Security officials, immigration experts and lawyers.
“Travel to Mexico to the United States. Costs $8,000. 100 percent safe,” reads a recent post written in Spanish. “Cross through Matamoros. You walk one hour, after in automobile until you arrive to your relative.”
The Spanish-language posts identified by NBC News were found on public Facebook pages with names like “Migrants from Various Countries in Mexico” and “Migrants in the Mexico-U.S.A. Border Awaiting Hearing.”
The pages had multiple posts a day: some from apparent smugglers, also known as coyotes, posting ads, others from desperate Central Americans seeking information about how best to immigrate to the U.S.
The Department of Homeland Security, which monitors social media posts by potential immigrants, believes the misinformation spread by smugglers is partly to blame for the recent surge at the border, said an official familiar with the department’s intelligence about the topic.
An apparent smuggler posted a picture of a family with luggage, wearing masks and sitting together on what appears to be a plane. “Make your dream a reality in the United States. We are here to help you,” the caption reads. “The journey is safe and reliable and the price is $4,500 leaving from Monterrey to San Antonio, Texas.”
In some cases, negotiations take place after initial pleas for help from migrants looking for ways to cross the border.
“Someone help me go to the United States,” a person posted to one of the Facebook groups.
It was not long before the post got several comments from people providing their smuggling rates, destinations and WhatsApp numbers.
“It’s ready. 3,000 to arrive at the line/ 6000 to jump to your destination. Whatever state. Pay when your relatives receive you,” an apparent smuggler wrote.
A spokesperson said that Facebook policy prohibits human exploitation and trafficking and that the company removes such content when it is identified or flagged by users.
Facebook removed all of the posts that NBC News flagged to the company.
Part of what makes the online advertising so dangerous, said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank, is that the smugglers are often unknown to their clients.
Previously, Selee said, smugglers had to build reputations within towns for being able to safely take residents to the U.S.
“There was a certain honor among thieves in this,” Selee said.
Now, a trend is emerging in which immigrants connect with smugglers through Facebook or WhatsApp once they get to Mexico, and they often do not know whom they are hiring.
“What worries me with this new model is people are hiring smugglers that they have no references for,” Selee said. “Thinking of vulnerable people with not a lot of information hiring someone sight unseen in a town they’ve never been to. The chances of that going wrong in so many ways is really high.”
On March 24, a person asked: “Excuse me does anyone know if they are letting [people] with kids cross the bridge?”
Immediately, responses poured in, and the answers were unanimous.
“Only if they enter alone,” a person wrote.
“They are not letting minors with parents pass,” another wrote.
The responses correctly echoed the Biden administration’s policy of expelling single adults and families but allowing unaccompanied children to stay. Recently, however, most families have been allowed to stay in the U.S. because parts of Mexico have stopped taking them back.
The conversations reflect the desperation of migrants who are looking for any path, including sending their children with unknown human smugglers, to escape poor conditions in Central America, said Amy Maldonado, an immigration lawyer.
“The Biden administration is forcing this because they kept the Title 42 policy,” Maldonado said, referring to the policy that expels everyone but unaccompanied children. She blamed the policy for encouraging more immigrants to try to cross illegally between ports of entry and to send their children alone.
“I can’t imagine how desperate you must be to trust your children to human traffickers,” she said.
Last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee about smugglers using the platform to spread misinformation to immigrants.
Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., told Zuckerberg, “I’m talking about coyotes who are using your platform to spread this kind of information, to assist in this illegal activity that is resulting in horrible conditions for these people who are trying to come across the border.”
Zuckerberg responded: “Congressman, that’s against our policies, and we’re taking a lot of steps to stop it.”