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Pandemic border restrictions are set to end, causing confusion about what that means

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Pandemic restrictions along the U.S.-Mexico border will be lifted next week, and that has led to a lot of misinformation on social media, sometimes spread by smugglers who stand to profit. NPR's Joel Rose reports that government officials, as well as immigrant advocates, are trying to dispel the rumors.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: If you talk to migrants at Espacio Migrante, a shelter in Tijuana, they know that something is coming, but they don't know exactly what.

MARIA ARRECES: (Through interpreter) We heard that there's going to be big crowds at the border. And we also heard that they're going to start deporting more undocumented people who are already in the U.S.

ROSE: Maria Arreces is from Guatemala. She fled with her family seven months ago after she says they were threatened by a gang that was trying to extort their business. Arreces has been trying to get an appointment to seek asylum through the CBP One app, but she heard a rumor that the U.S. government may stop using it.

ARRECES: (Through interpreter) I heard that things are going to get harder for people like me. Some say they're going to take away that CPB One option. Others say it will continue. And if they take that away, what are we going to do? Where are we going to be able to apply? The truth is we don't know what to think.

ROSE: To be clear, that rumor is false. The U.S. government is not taking CBP One away. In fact, it's going to add more appointments for migrants to make asylum claims at the border. But the confusion is typical. The pandemic border restrictions known as Title 42 are set to lift in less than a week. Shelter operators and immigrant advocates all along the border say they're fighting a constant battle against rumors and misinformation. And they're not always winning. Paulina Olvera Canez is the founder and director of Espacio Migrante.

PAULINA OLVERA CANEZ: There's not a lot of information available for asylum-seekers or even for organizations like ours, for shelters based in Mexico. And what we see that happens is that people take advantage of asylum-seekers.

ROSE: It's not that U.S. immigration authorities aren't trying. Homeland Security officials posted videos last month in Spanish and English explaining how the U.S. immigration system works.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) Do not believe smugglers who just want to make a profit.

ROSE: And Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has held several press conferences trying to encourage migrants to seek asylum through new legal pathways and not cross the border illegally when Title 42 lifts, including yesterday in South Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: The smugglers who exploit migrants are spreading false information, lies, in a way to lure vulnerable people to the southern border.

ROSE: But immigrant advocates say those messages don't always land. Rocio Melendez Dominguez is from HIAS, a U.S.-based refugee agency. Melendez lives in Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso.

ROCIO MELENDEZ DOMINGUEZ: We are seeing a lot of misinformation and rumors about - the border will be open after May 11.

ROSE: What's the source of that? Like, where do you see this?

MELENDEZ DOMINGUEZ: In everywhere - like, Facebook groups, in chats, in TikTok.

ROSE: Melendez says, sometimes, false information is spread deliberately by smugglers who stand to profit off of migrants. But often it's spread by trusted messengers, friends or relatives on social media who just don't understand what's happening.

MELENDEZ DOMINGUEZ: Sometimes, it's like they misunderstood some news, and people choose to believe in what sounds better, you know, in what gives them hope.

ROSE: Melendez says she tries to give migrants good information about what will happen if they cross the border illegally. But when people are desperate, it can be hard for them to hear.

Joel Rose, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.