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How smugglers seduce Central American migrants with the ‘American Dream’

More migrants were arrested or detained along the southern border in April than during any other month in the last 20 years. Desperate to make it to the U.S., many Central American migrants are being influenced by smugglers and their rosy pitches of an easy journey north. Amna Nawaz reports on the messages that are fueling migration.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There were more migrants arrested or detained along the Southern border in April than during any other month in the last 20 years.

    Desperate to make it to the U.S., many Central American migrants are being influenced by smugglers and their rosy pitches of an easy journey north.

    Amna Nawaz reports on the message that is fueling migration.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Those who enter Salcaja, Guatemala are met with a massive monument to those who've left, a lone migrant, memorialized in bronze, heading north, representing the thousands who've made the journey to the U.S.

  • Kevin (through translator):

    I have friends who have already gone. We'd sometimes play around my house. But there's no one left.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Just a few miles away, 19-year-old Kevin, father of a one-year old child, is weighing whether to follow. He misses his friends, but he also sees the big new houses cropping up in town, a sign those relatives in the U.S. are sending home money.

    His own crumbling home is now eclipsed by a brand-new one built just across the road. And Kevin himself is doing construction for a man who just five years ago set out for the States. All this, he says, is making him think now is the time to go to America, even though U.S. officials are saying it's not.

  • Sec. Alejandro Mayorkas:

    The border is closed.

  • Jen Psaki:

    The border remains closed. It is not open.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    President Biden himself has said it plainly..

  • Pres. Joe Biden:

    The vast majority, the overwhelming majority of people coming to the border and crossing are being sent back.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But those messages are competing with these in Guatemala, coyotes advertising an easy trek to U.S. destinations and a chance at a better life.

  • Announcer (through translator):

    All trips are specialized to New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta.

  • Kevin (through translator):

    They broadcast it on the radio, saying: You can call this number. It's a guaranteed journey.

    They sometimes drive by on the street, passing out cards, asking us if we're interested in pursuing the American dream.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Similar sales pitches spill across social media, ads marketing affordable trips to the U.S., all just a phone call away.

    So, we called one of those numbers to see what exactly was being promised. The smugglers offer assurance, a guaranteed safe arrival.

  • Man (through translator):

    One hundred percent guaranteed.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Half of Kevin's 12 siblings have already jumped at the offer and are in the U.S. His brother-in-law Alvinex was the latest to tap into the smugglers' network.

  • Alvinex (through translator):

    They travel with us, leaving Guatemala, and going through Mexico. They come with us up until hitting the border. Then they drop us off with another smuggler, who has to help us get through the desert.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But his trip was cut short way before the U.S. border. Stopped by Mexican authorities, he was deported back to Guatemala.

  • Alvinex (through translator):

    When we first get in touch with them, they say it's a guaranteed trip. They say: Don't worry. You won't suffer. You won't be hungry. The trip is 100 percent safe.

    The truth is, when I left, I did believe him.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The sales pitch he bought into was far from reality.

  • Alvinex (through translator):

    He told me there are bathrooms, shower stalls along the way, almost like describing a mansion. They explain it all in detail. But, once you get there, it's different.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Biden administration is engaged in information warfare, messaging to would-be migrants with thousands of radio and digital ads across the region. They feature harrowing testimonies, in both Spanish and indigenous languages, from people who've taken the journey, warning others not to try it.

  • Woman (through translator):

    The smugglers tell you that the journey is easy and you will only walk for one night. But it's all a lie. We walked for five days and five nights. They would only give you canned food, and we had run out of water.

  • Dora Alonzo (through translator):

    Fear has always been used as a strategy to deter migration.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dora Alonzo works at a nonprofit nearby, steering young Guatemalans to opportunities here, in the hopes they won't leave.

  • Dora Alonzo (through translator):

    Nevertheless, for most Guatemalan youth, it's a see-it-to-believe-it philosophy. The message that's getting here right now is that people are getting in. Now is your chance. If you want to go to the United States, whether you are a minor, young, old, or a woman, everyone is passing through. That's the message that has intensified.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    While the number of children crossing the border dropped back slightly last month, overall encounters at the U.S. border have continued at a 20-year-high, with over 178,000 in April, 30,000 of them from Guatemala.

    Most single adults are turned away under a pandemic rule implemented by then-President Trump, and kept in place by President Biden. But Alonzo says Biden's rhetoric, when compared to Trump's, may have led to mixed signals.

  • Dora Alonzo (through translator):

    The Biden administration is being seen not as weak, but as a government willing to give people a much better chance at moving forward than the Trump administration did.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Beyond rhetoric, the Biden administration says it is taking steps to slow migration, including by targeting the smugglers themselves, as Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas recently told the "NewsHour."

  • Alejandro Mayorkas:

    We have commenced Operation Sentinel to target the smuggling organizations here in the United States, where they move money and other resources, and south of our border as well.

    This is an all-of-government approach, not only by messaging, but also by law enforcement efforts.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And the White House is focusing on root causes, the cycles of violence and poverty fueling migration. Vice President Kamala Harris leads that effort.

  • Vice Pres. Kamala Harris:

    These are the acute factors that, in many ways, are causing people to leave their homes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In a virtual meeting last month with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, Harris pledged more than $300 million in relief to the region.

    But Alonzo says the promise of help later won't change much now.

  • Dora Alonzo (through translator):

    A lot of people won't care about that. People right now are looking for ways to survive, not just live, but to survive.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The chance to do more than scrape by is a strong pull for Kevin.

  • Kevin (through translator):

    When I look at the situation here, it's very complicated. You barely make any money. You usually make enough only for your weekly expenses. So I do think about going there to get ahead.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And despite his failed attempt, Alvinex is already messaging with another smuggler, who tells him not to worry. Just like before, this smuggler says he's guaranteed to get in.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

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