Biden’s Border Asylum App Has Migrants Waiting Months in Danger

(Bloomberg) -- Domiciano Estrada Cruz fled gang violence at his home in southern Mexico to seek asylum at the US border crossing in Tijuana. He was prepared with a raft of papers documenting his family’s case. But Mexican officials explained that they would need to seek protection the digital way — using an app.

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He downloaded CBP One, the asylum solution rolled out by the US government earlier this year, and made an account to request an appointment. At first, Estrada, 40, felt hopeful. Mexican officials told him he would likely receive a slot in two to four weeks. Nearly four months later, he is still waiting.

“The days are long and full of faith — full of faith that it will be my turn, that they will give me an appointment,” said Estrada, staring down at a pair of dusty boots, a relic of the ranch he was forced to leave after he was violently attacked. “But they don’t.”

The app displays the same message as the day he registered: “Please wait.”

This is the slick, impersonal gateway to the asylum process that migrants and refugees have experienced through CBP One, which is now one of the primary avenues for seeking protection in the US. As migrants and refugees from Ukraine to Venezuela arrive at the southern border in historic numbers, their presence has vaulted immigration to the forefront of voters’ minds ahead of the 2024 presidential election. President Joe Biden has argued that he can bring order to the border, while preserving pathways for people to enter the country legally, by taking a more high-tech approach. CBP One is part of the pledge for a more modern, streamlined asylum system.

But advocates say the app, developed partially within the agency and partially through contracts, has crucial flaws. It’s available in only Spanish, English and Haitian Creole, a poor match for the growing number of people seeking asylum at the southern border from Africa and Asia, not to mention those who speak indigenous languages. Migrants must also have a smartphone in order to use the app, a significant barrier for many fleeing poverty.

The biggest problem, advocates say, is the scarcity of appointments. Slots are assigned largely at random, and monthslong waits like Estrada’s are not uncommon. The wait times are compounded by many migrants’ confusion about how to use the app, which comes with high stakes and no tech support. Some migrants and refugees, particularly the elderly, are using smartphones for the first time; others delete their registration when appointments don’t materialize after a few weeks, losing their places in line.

“There’s no bettering an app when we’re talking about people who have never had use of a smartphone before and have never used an app before, let alone an app with life or death consequences,” said Ari Sawyer, a border researcher with Human Rights Watch. “People need to be able to approach the port of entry and seek asylum.”

As migrants languish in northern Mexico, reports of kidnapping and extortion are on the rise. The dangerous conditions push many of them to hire human smugglers to help them cross, Sawyer said. It undermines one of the Biden administration’s main justifications for CBP One: to create more opportunities for migrants to enter the country legally, so they don’t need to do business with coyotes in the first place.

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CBP says the app has made it possible to “process migrants more efficiently” while cutting out smugglers, enabling 324,000 people to schedule appointments to present their cases at a port of entry to the US between its introduction in January and the end of October. Two thirds of recent users received appointments in less than eight weeks, according to spokesperson Erin Waters. “CBP is continually monitoring and evaluating the application to ensure its functionality and guard against bad actors.”

A senior CBP official pushed back on the notion that relying on the app has created a dangerous situation for migrants. On the contrary, it allows them to seek entry to the US without turning to the cartels that facilitate illegal border crossings between ports of entry, the official said.

CBP One is just one prong of the US government’s increasingly digital approach to border management. The wall that runs along much of the US-Mexico frontier hums with drones, cameras and sensors. The government has steadily increased its use of facial recognition at the border. To use CBP One, migrants must upload a selfie and enable GPS tracking. It’s a level of data collection that they cannot truly consent to, forced out of desperation, said Franco Giandana, a policy analyst with the digital rights nonprofit Access Now.

By the time migrants reach the US-Mexico border, “there’s no turning back. What are they going to do? Are they going to go back to their country of origin, where they’re suffering from poverty or persecution from their government?” Giandana said. “It’s not a possibility.”

Human smuggling networks have also seized on the confusion surrounding the app, finding new ways to profit. The Tech Transparency Project, a research arm of the nonprofit Campaign for Accountability, found a few ads on Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook promising help with CBP One. “Fulfill your AMERICAN DREAM in less than 30 DAYS!!!” one ad read in Spanish, according to TTP. Though the ads appeared to be scams, they served as a reminder of how new immigration controls introduced by the US often drum up business for groups that promise a way to circumvent them. A spokesperson for Meta said the company works hard to prevent scams from spreading on the platform.

To dispel some of the confusion surrounding CBP One, the immigration nonprofit Al Otro Lado holds weekly training sessions on the app and other facets of the asylum process at its offices in Tijuana, which borders San Diego, California. Estrada was one of the roughly 50 migrants and refugees who gathered last week, joined by his niece and her three-year-old son. He sent the boy to a makeshift classroom, where about a dozen children fashioned snowflakes from sheets of white paper.

As he waited for the session to begin, Estrada checked TikTok, where he found a stream of celebratory posts from migrants who had secured the coveted slots. Some had higher registration numbers, indicating they signed up later than him. “They have advanced, and I’m very far behind,” said Estrada, who spoke in Spanish. “It saddens me — why not us?”

A lawyer began the session by asking the group if they had struggled with the app’s hiccups and glitches. Many in the audience nodded in agreement. From a seat near the back, Gloria, a 33-year-old from southern Mexico, listened as best she could while trying to soothe her 1-year-old son, whose eyes and nose were crusted over from an illness he acquired in the shelter where they are staying. Every morning, she logs onto the app when the window to request an appointment begins, right at 9 am, or by 9:02 or 9:03 at the latest, if one of her four children has distracted her.

“You request the appointment, and that’s it,” said Gloria, who left her home due to safety concerns and asked that only part of her name be used. “After that, it’s in God’s hands.”

But on this day, her app was frozen. Every time she entered her login information, it sent her back to the home screen, which displays an image of CBP’s ornate seal.

After nearly two months at the border, Patricia Campos, an asylum seeker from El Salvador, is haunted by the notion that others have cut the line. When passing through southern Mexico, she and her husband turned down lawyers who offered to help them secure appointments for a $100 fee. They’ve also heard rumors of more tech savvy migrants using GPS simulation apps to join the line before reaching the border. But Campos is determined to play by the rules, and she says she’s grateful for the appointments that are being made available. “At least there’s hope,” she says.

About a mile from the nonprofit offices, Miguel Portillo, a 24-year-old migrant from Venezuela, sat in the shade outside the US port of entry. It was finally his turn to speak with US officials. He’d arrived there at 7:30 a.m. for his 1 p.m. appointment, leaving nothing to chance after all the anxiety of waiting. When he finally landed a slot, he cried. In that moment, “I was liberated of everything — stress, fear,” he said.

The Biden administration says it has taken steps to improve CBP One, revamping the app to make sure that those with slow internet connections aren’t at a disadvantage and to prioritize those who have been waiting the longest. It has also upped the number of appointments that are on offer each day. The average wait time for non-Mexicans is two months after making an account and requesting an appointment, according to the senior CBP official. For Mexicans, the wait time is currently a little over 3 months, the official said. There's a limit on the daily allocation of appointments for Mexicans to prevent them from becoming the overwhelming nationality represented, the official said.

Estrada is still waiting. Since he requested his appointment, more family members have arrived in Tijuana. He doesn’t want to lose his spot by creating a new reservation for the whole family, but he can’t bear the thought of crossing without them, either.

When the training concluded, Estrada and his family retreated to a room they were renting in town. In the middle of the night, they were awoken by armed intruders who stole their mobile phones, the little cash they had on hand, and their IDs.

In the days since the robbery, Estrada and his family have struggled to sleep, fighting nightmares. He tried requesting asylum appointments about 1,500 miles away in Brownsville, Texas, hoping to find a shorter line. But he abandoned the plan after realizing he no longer had enough money for bus fare. He’s more determined than ever to reach the US, if not for himself, then at least for his family.

“It’s the only country where I’m going to feel safe with my children,” he said, “the only place where we will be protected.”

--With assistance from Ellen M Gilmer.

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