NECOCLÍ, Colombia — One TikTok video — it’s been viewed 17.4 million times — claims that as of Thursday, “people who arrive at the U.S. border will not be able to be deported.”
And for the Venezuelan migrants preparing to walk the 70-mile stretch of jungle that divides South from Central America, one of the most dangerous stages of their journey to the United States, it was nearly impossible to know what to believe.
With the end on Thursday of Title 42, the pandemic-era policy that the Trump and Biden administrations used to expel immigrants who entered the United States illegally, migrants’ WhatsApp and Facebook groups have been flooded with conflicting intelligence about what might await them at the border. Voice memos from family members and friends and friends-of-friends added more grist to the rumor mill.
“They’re all cuentos de camino,” said migrant advocate Patricia Andrade. Literally, “road stories,” but also a Venezuelan phrase for gossip.
Even with limited cellphone reception, migrants rely on these social media channels for information on their way to the United States. This week, as illegal border crossings surged, the messages were especially confusing. So was the policy itself: Biden administration officials say a new system will make it easier for border agents to deport asylum seekers who cross illegally, while allowing more migrants to enter legally by using an app.
U.S. officials warn that migrants who cross illegally could be deported, barred for five years and prosecuted for the crime of illegal entry.
But many migrants are hearing inaccurate or entirely different versions of the policy change in widely shared videos on Instagram and TikTok. The hashtag #titulo42 was viewed more than 109 million times on TikTok by Friday afternoon.
“Luis, listen to what I’m going to tell you. … They’re deporting people, anyone getting there illegally,” a Colombian woman told her son-in-law, Luis Enrique Montoya, 24, in a WhatsApp voice memo as he rode a bus through Honduras toward the Guatemalan border. “They say, ‘Come on in, come on in,’ and it turns out that when they come in, it’s so they can put them on a plane and send them back here.”
In Necoclí, a coastal town near the entrance of the Darién Gap, the roadless jungle between Colombia and Panama, an advocate for migrants noticed the confusion among the gathering hundreds. On Thursday, hours before Title 42 was set to expire, Marlyn Luque Urquiola stood in a circle with a group of migrants on a beach and asked what they knew about the change in border policy.
“Have you received information from some institution?” Luque asked. Had they been given any guidance from U.N. agencies or other groups?
“Nothing,” one man said. “This is the first time I’m receiving any.”
“Where have you received information?” Luque asked.
“On social media, pretty much,” another man said. “You see everything that happens on there and get informed, little by little.”
She asked one young man what he knew about the end of Title 42.
“Honestly, nothing, because one person tells you one thing, and another person tells you another thing,” said Heisber Silva, a 24-year-old Venezuelan.
“What are your plans for getting into the United States?” Luque asked.
“To turn myself in to immigration,” he said. He had heard something about an application, he said, but didn’t know anything about it.
Silva had left Venezuela four years earlier, after experiencing sexual assault, death threats and intense homophobia, he said. He spent years in Lima, Peru, working in nightclubs, before making his way to Colombia. Now, with $100 in his pockets, he hoped to reach the United States. Maybe the United States, he hoped, would be a safer place for a gay man. But he worried about what might happen at the border.
From here on out, Luque explained, there would be new requirements for migrants entering the United States. She suggested that they use the U.S. Customs and Border Protection application and wait for an appointment with immigration authorities.
Some migrants don’t learn about the system until they get to Mexico, she told The Washington Post, when they might have failed to carry with them the documents they would need. Her goal was to tell them the requirements before they left so they would be better prepared at the border. She hoped.
Of all the migrants Luque spoke with Thursday, she said, only one understood the end of Title 42, thanks to a Telegram channel. Most of the others knew very little to nothing at all. But as news spread on social media and WhatsApp, many feared it amounted to a closed border.
“For many of them, it was the end of the American Dream,” Luque said. Migrants who had made it to Panama and Costa Rica told her they were turning around and heading back to Colombia. Many had run out of money, and they wouldn’t be able to wait in Mexico for an appointment with immigration authorities.
Others were resolute. Robert Castillo, a 43-year-old originally from Maracay, Venezuela, crossed the Darién Gap and made it to the U.S. border in March. But he was stopped by migration authorities and sent back to Mexico, he said, where he suffered an accident while trying to board the freight train hopped by migrants known as “The Beast.” His foot was crushed and ultimately amputated. But now he was trying to cross again.
“I’m going there, and no one will change my mind,” he said. “Some people say that if you get caught, you get deported to your country, but I don’t know if that’s true. A friend of mine crossed and apparently is now in a shelter, but I’m waiting for her to contact me and tell me how she did it.”
As Title 42 expired at 11:59 p.m. Thursday, many migrants were unsure what to do next. Nayrobi, 38, had traveled to Necoclí from Venezuela with her four children. Nayrobi, who spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld out of concern for their security, had hoped to make it to the U.S. border before the policy changed. She had heard in TikTok videos and on Facebook that the border would be closing after Thursday.
But by the time she had reached Necoclí, she had run out of money, and she wasn’t sure whether it was worth continuing the journey. She decided she would wait until she knew more about the situation at the border — whether President Biden was, in fact, closing it to migrants like her.
“We’ll see what the president says,” she said.
Schmidt reported from Bogotá, Colombia. Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas, Venezuela, and Diana Durán in Bogotá contributed to this report.