Juarez, MEXICO - The Facebook ad shows three pregnant women cradling their bellies, one of them giving a thumbs-up sign to the camera. Below the photo is a Guatemalan phone number where callers can receive more information.
Another ad depicts a group of women and young children crammed into a small room. “It’s not like this anymore, you won't spend more than a few hours,” reads the caption alongside the same phone number.
Always quick to seize on a new business opportunity, the smuggling networks that transport migrants from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border have jumped on a new Biden Administration policy that largely ends the Trump Administration’s detentions of migrants who are pregnant or have recently given birth.
With the new Facebook ads and a WhatsApp business account, the smuggling networks are promising pregnant women and mothers with children under 6 a fast track to the United States and swift entry.
Facebook says that it does not allow its site to be used to promote migrant smuggling, but many pages remain up even after they have been flagged to the company.
The latest measure from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) directs agents “generally” not to detain, arrest, or take into custody pregnant, postpartum or nursing individuals. The directive still allows ICE to place them in temporary facilities for families and to begin the process for removal “or any other immigration enforcement actions.”
Pregnant migrants and families have been arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border for decades, and in the past five years there has been a spike in the number turning themselves into Border Patrol agents after crossing the Rio Grande and then applying for asylum.
During the four years of the Trump Administration, ICE detained around 4,000 pregnant migrants, according to government data obtained by The New York Times. But only about 20 pregnant migrants were in custody in July this year, the Times reported, in part because of efforts to remove migrants at higher risk for COVID from crowded facilities.
The new policy, which went into effect on July 1, doesn’t apply to pregnant women apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection as they cross the border. Pregnant women traveling alone are treated the same way as other single adults, almost all of whom are expelled to Mexico under COVID restrictions.
Still, the new rule lifting most detentions was immediately seized upon by smugglers, particularly in Guatemala. A human smuggling ring that appeared by the details included in its posts to have connections to criminal organizations in Mexico started advertising “trips for pregnant women and mothers.”
The smugglers are also exploiting would-be migrants’ lack of understanding of the complexities of ever-changing U.S. immigration enforcement. Any loosening of restrictions can be easily twisted into misinformation for desperate Central Americans anxious to believe the border may suddenly open for them.
When VICE World News called the number on the Facebook ad, a man answered and said, “We are offering several routes: One takes up to 45 minutes walking, the other one 15 minutes walking, and mothers with kids under 6 years old can turn themselves (into the Border Patrol).”
There is no new immigration policy allowing all mothers with children under 6 years old to enter the U.S. But unlike the case of pregnant women, the odds for mothers traveling with children are better. From March to June, 84 percent of all families with children were allowed into the country, according to figures from Customs and Border Protection, which does not distinguish the children by age.
And virtually all families traveling with young children were allowed into the U.S., said Adam Isaacson, an expert on migration at the Washington Office of Latin America, because the northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which is where most Central American migrants try to cross, refuses to accept deported migrant children aged 6 and under.
“The smugglers are right,” Isaacson said, referring to the possibility that families traveling with young children will be allowed into the U.S. “It would make sense for them to use that as a sales pitch because most of the time it's true.”
Still, the smugglers include both pregnant women and the mothers of young children in their sales pitch, which claims special knowledge of the most porous borders.
“There is a new chance for pregnant women and mothers. They are not allowed to enter the U.S. through all of the borders, but we know exactly which borders are letting them in,” the smuggler added, speaking on behalf of Viajes Exprés, a self-proclaimed “travel agency” for migrants looking to enter the U.S. irregularly. He would not give his name.
The man said the agency charged 5,000 Quetzales (about U.S. $650) on departure from Huehuetenango in Guatemala, and another U.S. $4,000 once migrants arrive at the Mexican side of the border with the U.S. His job, he added, is to leave migrants right next to the river on U.S. soil and “from there they are on their own.”
“I send them (pregnant women) in a private car, all the way to the border. I can’t tell you which border I have my contacts in, but be sure that the women I send, they all arrive well, they eat, they sleep and they make it across without any issue,” he said.
The new advertising push from smugglers also promises to provide a Mexican Regional Visitor Card (TVR), which they falsely say allows the migrants to travel across Mexico legally. The Facebook page shows people acquiring the card, but it is only valid for travel in three southern Mexican states.
The Tech Transparency Project, an information and research hub seeking to hold large technology companies accountable for what appears on their platforms, recently published a report on the human smuggling services that advertise on Facebook.
“When presented with a list of 50 human smuggler pages in April, Facebook took down about half, while inexplicably leaving the others up and running,” the report said.
“Facebook has in many ways become a one-stop shop for human smugglers, allowing them to identify, solicit, and privately communicate with would-be migrants,” the report added.
“That’s not a coincidence: Facebook has used controversial internet-connectivity programs to make itself ubiquitous in Latin America, while struggling to effectively police its platform,” the report added.
In response to the report, a Facebook spokesperson said by email that, “We prohibit content that offers to provide or facilitate human smuggling.”
“We rely on people and technology to remove this content, and work with NGOs and other stakeholders to combat ways our platform may be used by those who want to harm people,” the spokesperson added. “We are constantly evaluating ways to improve our enforcement so we can most effectively find and remove content that breaks our rules.”
One of the Facebook pages used to attract migrants was created in March this year and another one dates back to July 2018. Both regularly capitalize on any news breaking from the U.S. government.
In February, after the Biden Administration announced the end of the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) program, which required migrants seeking asylum to await their U.S. hearings in Mexico, the Facebook page posted misleading messages about “open borders” alleging the U.S. was taking in everyone arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
After the January massacre of 19 migrants, mostly from Guatemala, in Tamaulipas, the scam agency posted a photo of the victims’ burnt-out vehicles and warned potential customers to “choose wisely” when they decide whom to travel with on their attempt to enter the U.S.
“Choose well who you are traveling with. There are many cheap offers out there but it ends up being more expensive,” the ad said.
“We have several WhatsApp groups so you can ask for references.”