As three Cuban asylum-seekers struggled through thick vegetation and razor wire to reach the U.S., a viral voice familiar to many migrants welcomed them. Holding two live-streaming smartphones aloft, TikTok activist Carlos Eduardo Espina narrated their every move for thousands of commenting fans.
The 25-year-old law school student began posting Spanish-language TikTok videos two years ago to help migrants understand the U.S. immigration system. With nearly 3.1 million followers now, Espina’s popular posts include the latest news and advice on how migrants can safely reach the U.S.
“The quick format of the videos, where you’re able to watch a TikTok in 10 seconds and then watch another one, is really convenient for immigrants — especially if you’re on the move — you’re going through Mexico or through Central America,” said Espina, explaining his videos’ popularity with traveling migrants.
The social media activist’s videos include warnings about crocodile sightings, the latest Title 42 developments and descriptions of items left behind by migrants.
“What I try to do is just tell them the reality of what they can expect when they get to the border,” said Espina, after traveling from his home in Las Vegas to the busy crossing point of Eagle Pass, Texas. “It’s not so simple as you just cross the border and then you’re here in the U.S.”
As the sunset over the Rio Grande, many of the 120 Cubans, Colombians and Venezuelans who waded through waist-deep water recognized Espina.
Honduran migrant Laura Martinez shouted her appreciation after following Espina’s account for advice on when to cross.
“He informs us of the river current, when it goes up and down, the situation of border agents, and the suffering migrants face when crossing,” Martinez explained.
Overnight rains raised the river’s water to about neck-level for most adults, a possible explanation for the absence of groups numbering in the dozens, even over 100, that frequent the area many days.
Espina’s latest video warning migrants of the dangerous currents may have also dissuaded some.
As tearful migrants embraced nearby, after reaching their final destination, Espina put down his smartphone to reflect on why he started his informational videos.
Espina immigrated legally to Texas when he was 5 years old with his Uruguayan father and Mexican mother and has been involved in community activism since he was a teenager.
“My mentality is, if I’m here, my family was able to immigrate, today I’m a U.S. citizen, why can’t others have that same opportunity?” he said explaining his motivation.
“I’ve been blessed in this country to be able to go to school. Now I’m in law school. I’ve been able to work. I’ve been able to contribute,” he added. “I want people at the end of the day to be safe, to be secure, and to not make decisions that could potentially put their lives in danger.”
Espina came to offer his advice in Eagle Pass due to the relative ease of crossing — migrants walk across the river within a few minutes, often without paying a smuggler — and a perception that it is relatively safe on the Mexican side has made the remote region a major migration route.
Texas’ Rio Grande Valley has long been the busiest of nine Border Patrol sectors on the Mexican border, but Del Rio has surged to a close second this year. Yuma, Arizona, another spot known for relative safety and ease of crossing, has jumped to third-busiest.