Lihua Wu's journey to the United States started when she scrolled past the words "The Route", one of several common hashtags on Douyin — the Chinese counterpart of TikTok — advising migrants on the irregular overland trek across Latin America to the United States, also known online as "the Big Beautiful."

By the time the single mother and her 5-year-old daughter were apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol on a dirt road near the U.S.-Mexico border, just before midnight on April 2, Wu said she had relied on social media for detailed instructions for her trip, including on footwear (Crocs as well as hiking boots) and how to find and pay for a reliable local guide.

The difficulty of obtaining U.S. visas and the economic aftershocks of China’s COVID-19 lockdowns have led to a sharp increase in Chinese nationals presenting at the U.S.-Mexico border — and some of those arrivals, like Wu, learned about how to come online, according to migrants, immigration experts, attorneys and current and former U.S. officials.