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Human smugglers exploit migrants' confusion for their own profit as Title 42 ends

"They have zero regard for life," said one Border Patrol Agent. "The people they smuggle are just a commodity to them, no different than vegetables or drugs."

TIJUANA, Baja California — On Thursday, May 11, Title 42 will officially end: a significant shift in U.S. border policy that human smugglers exploit for profit.

Already, we have seen hundreds of migrants lining up near the border hoping to claim asylum, as many more continue to pour into Tijuana, desperate for their shot at getting to the other side.

Dozens of other migrants are staying at Casa del Migrante, one of roughly 30 migrant shelters scattered throughout Tijuana.

And this is no ordinary day here.

"We are celebrating 36 years of service," said Father Pat Murphy, director of  Casa del Migrante, which provides food, lodging, and support for as many as 140 migrants seeking asylum in the U.S., including dozens of children.

While the mood is festive, with preparations underway for a party later in the day, the reason these migrants come here in the first place is nothing to celebrate.

Many are fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries, from Honduras and Venezuela to El Salvador and Haiti - even one migrant from Bangladesh.

"It's a real challenge," said Father Murphy. "He doesn't speak our language, and we don't speak his."

Father Murphy noted that the largest group of migrants here is actually from Mexico.

"Escaping the violence of places like Michoacan and Guerrero," he told CBS 8. "People whose businesses and houses have been taken over by the cartel, and you're told that you have three days to leave... and if not, we are going to burn your house down!"

"They have nothing but great hopes of getting to the other side," said Cuban-born David Perez Acosta, who has been staying at Casa del Migrante for the past three weeks.

While Perez Acosta is not seeking asylum himself, he's familiar with the stories of the other residents here, pointing to the desperation they face in fleeing their homelands.

"I think the word 'desperate' right about now is an understatement," he added. "I think for them; it's a matter of life and death right now."

"They all want a better life... that's the only thing they're here for," Father Murphy told CBS 8. "Nobody wants to immigrate for fun. It is survival!"

With Title 42, which allowed U.S. border officials to automatically turn back migrants, now ending, Father Murphy expects more and more migrants to continue to come to Tijuana, hoping to cross over to the U.S. and claim asylum. 

These migrants also face another threat: human smugglers offering to transport them illegally into the U.S. for thousands of dollars, which is often their life savings.

"More people will come to Tijuana, and the coyotes, the smugglers, will just keep giving misinformation," he added. 

Migrants' rights advocates say that whenever there is a significant change in border policy, like right now, human smugglers take advantage of the confusion, preying on migrants desperate for a way into the United States and exploiting them for their profit.

"It's amazing what they can do with confusion," Father Murphy noted.

"They have zero regards for life," said Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Daniel Anderson, who added that they have seen a spike in human smuggling attempts in recent months.

For instance, Customs and Border Protection officers at the Brown Field Border Patrol Station stopped a dozen vehicles involved in human smuggling in January.

"Twelve in one day is much more than what we are used to seeing," Anderson said. 

This increase is expected to continue as Title 42 lapses.

Agent Anderson stressed that migrants who place themselves in the hands of smugglers often face unknown dangers.

"They do not care about the humans and the lives that they're smuggling... they are in it for the money," Anderson said. "The people they smuggle are just a commodity to them, no different than vegetables or drugs. They're just moving people for profit."

Last June, 51 migrants died in the worst-known human smuggling operation on U.S. soil. Their bodies were recovered in the trailer of an 18-wheeler on the outskirts of San Antonio.

Some migrant rights advocates say that in some cases, smuggled people end up in forced labor or sex trafficking to pay off their debts to the smugglers.

"A lot of the times, we don't know what happens to the people... they kind of disappear," Father Murphy said.

Under federal immigration law, migrants caught coming into the U.S. without documentation, through a smuggler or not, will be removed, barred from legal re-entry for at least five years, and could face prosecution.

"This is something you don't want to take a chance with," Perez Acosta added. "Do not!"

Customs and Border Protection officials said that they encourage anyone who wants to enter the United States to use the ports of entry, emphasizing that they are both legal and safe.

Watch Related: Migrants being misinformed before beginning journey to U.S.-Mexico border (May 9, 2023)

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