“I thought it would be easy for my son to get papers in the north,” reads the billboard’s bold Spanish words, next to the image of a child alone in the desert. “That was not true.”
This billboard, along with others like it, will soon be plastered across Central American cities—just one part of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s new million-dollar “Dangers Awareness Campaign.” The campaign aims to discourage people—particularly families in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—from sending their children to cross the southern U.S. border through Mexico. In addition to the billboards, the campaign includes 6,500 public service announcements that will air on TV and radio in those three countries as well as in U.S. cities with large Central American contingents.
“Families need to understand that the journey north has become much more treacherous and there are no ‘permisos’ [amnesty] for those crossing the border illegally,” said CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske in a statement last week. “Children, especially, are easy prey for coyotes and transnational criminal organizations and they can be subjected to robbery, violence, sexual assault, sex trafficking or forced labor.”
The CBP announced plans for the campaign ahead of the Fourth of July weekend, as the Border Patrol, the Department of Health and Human Services and even FEMA are grappling to handle the tens of thousands of Central Americans who’ve been caught crossing the border illegally over the past few months—and the tens of thousands more who are expected to come before the year’s end.
This isn’t the first time the U.S. has employed advertising tactics to discourage illegal immigration. Back in 1998, the Border Patrol first implemented the Border Safety Initiative, or BSI, a program similar to the CBP’s latest campaign, that used public service announcements to warn potential migrants of the risks involved in crossing the border. As a part of BSI, Border Patrol also employed a Washington, D.C.-based advertising agency to compose songs about the dangers of illegal immigration. Nicknamed migra corridos, the narrative ballads told tragic stories of fatal border crossings in a format akin to the popular narcocorridos. CDs with five of these so-called migra corridos were then distributed to Mexican radio stations who played them as part of the regular rotation. Listeners enjoyed them along with their favorite songs, unaware that they were commissioned by the U.S. government.
In 2009, the Border Patrol credited the BSI with contributing to the then-drop in crossing deaths, which had steadily decreased from 2005’s record high of 492 to 390 in 2008. (By 2012, the number was back up to 463.)
It’s unclear whether the CBP plans to employ subliminal music messaging to combat the current crossing crisis. According to a 2009 Washington Post article on migra corridos, songs specifically targeted toward potential Central American immigrants were in the works. Elevation, the agency responsible for at least the first batch of migra corridos, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The ads that the agency has made available to the press, though, are pretty heavy. And while they’re clearly public service announcements, they do not bear any explicit disclaimer informing the viewer that they were paid for by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
In one 60-second video, which will be aired on television in Honduras, a young man is seen writing a letter to his uncle in the United States, notifying him that he is planning to cross the border. After hugging his mother goodbye, the young man is seen lying dead in the desert. In another, meant for viewers in El Salvador, shadows on a wall illustrate a conversation between a teenage boy and a smuggler. The shadow of the smuggler—an older man in a cowboy hat—morphs into the shadow of a coyote, as he tells the boy to relax, that he’ll be able to get papers once he crosses the river. The shadow of the boy hands the coyote money before morphing into a cross, illustrating that he, too, died during his journey north.