Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Mobile app hiccups frustrate asylum-seekers

New technology provides promising but error-filled process for immigrants

A migrant using the CBP One app, Jan. 24, 2023, in Tijuana, Mexico Associated Press/Photo by Gregory Bull

Mobile app hiccups frustrate asylum-seekers

When a pregnant or disabled asylum-seeker arrives at a port of entry, Border Patrol agents call Valeria Wheeler. “If they identify any vulnerability … they call us,” she said. Wheeler directs Mission: Border Hope, a respite center for immigrants in Eagle Pass, Texas. Three bridges connect the bustling county seat to its Mexican neighbor, Piedras Negras.

When she gets word of a need, Wheeler sends a donated van to the ports of entry to bring asylum-seekers back to the shelter. Last fall, over 600 arrivals per day meant the mother of three barely had time to catch her breath.

But new technology has narrowed the asylum portal and reduced large group crossings across the Rio Grande. U.S. Customs and Border Protection unveiled a mobile app for asylum-seekers in January to encourage immigrants to book appointments with CBP officers instead of illegally crossing the border between ports of entry.

The Biden administration turned to the app in hopes it will prevent another surge in border crossings when the COVID-19 national health emergency ends in May. But many users say the app crashes frequently and available appointments are snapped up in minutes. While acknowledging the technology is a step in the right direction, some immigration experts question its effectiveness for those in need of immediate protection.

Before January, commercial trucking companies predominately used the CBP One app to schedule cargo inspections for trucks crossing the border. Now, asylum-seekers can also use the app to book humanitarian parole appointments or request exemptions from Title 42, the pandemic-era public health order that allows authorities to expel immigrants before they can request asylum.

Last fiscal year, a record 2.76 million illegal immigrants crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. Crossings fell after President Joe Biden rolled out stricter immigration rules in January. The administration announced a temporary humanitarian parole program for up to 30,000 immigrants per month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. The rules directed authorities to send back immigrants who did not qualify for parole using Title 42.

But not everyone who doesn’t qualify for a parole program is turned away. Immigrants who are pregnant, disabled, physically or mentally ill, younger than 21, or older than 70 can request a Title 42 exception through the CBP One app. Asylum-seekers can also ask for exceptions if they face threat of harm or lack of access to safe housing or shelter in Mexico. If they fit one or more of these categories, app users can schedule an initial asylum interview appointment at a port of entry.

In reality, Title 42 expulsions only apply to single adults who don’t qualify for the parole program and a few Mexican families, said Ariel Ruiz Soto, a policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute. Ruiz Soto traveled along the border in March, visiting ports of entry between San Diego and Brownsville, Texas. He said the app may limit who is able to ask for asylum. “You have to have a good cell phone,” he said. “You have to have a stable and solid connection.” He and his colleagues watched people using multiple cell phones to secure an appointment.

The app also requires asylum-seekers to apply from specific locations. South of the border, the app is only available as far as Mexico City. Ruiz Soto hopes CBP will expand its availability to prevent people from embarking on a dangerous journey from other countries without first gauging their chance of success.

Jennie Murray, the president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, said the app isn’t a cure-all. “It’s an attempt … but we don’t think it’s necessarily a silver bullet,” she said. Murray said a tool like CBP One would be most effective if a caseworker helped the immigrant enter the information.

Long wait times and limited appointments also frustrate many immigrants. Appointments open at 11 a.m. Eastern time every day and applicants can schedule interviews up to 13 days in advance. Officials told CBS they plan to increase the number of daily appointments from 740 to 1,000.

Last month, a fire at a Juarez, Mexico, holding center killed at least 40 immigrants and injured 28. False reports claiming the border was open following the deadly blaze prompted about 1,000 immigrants, most of them Venezuelans, to line up at bridges and surrender themselves to authorities. CBP officers turned them away. Misinformation and frustration with the app fueled a similar border rush in mid-March.

“It’s the same wait, 24 hours, just for one minute,” a Venezuelan immigrant told NewsNation. “We wait every day until 9 a.m. and [the] next day until 9 a.m. Everyone waits until 9 a.m. to try to connect but the page doesn’t load.”

Not all users encounter monthslong wait times. Carlos Navarro pastors Iglesia Bautista West Brownsville and hands out Bibles and water bottles to asylum hopefuls at a Brownsville respite center. He told me about a woman and her daughter who arrived at the center after getting an appointment within five days. About a week later, the woman’s boyfriend joined them, he said, noting that the couple applied separately since they are not married.

In Eagle Pass, Wheeler said she hears about issues with the technology from other organizations, but she hasn’t heard immigrants complain about long wait times when they arrive at Mission: Border Hope. Most are overwhelmed by relief. “When they arrive to us, they’re happy,” she said. “They don’t complain at all.”

A recent update made it easier for families to request appointments together. CBP added Haitian Creole to its languages following complaints from Haitians having trouble using the app.

Some migrants also said the app frequently rejected photo submissions from immigrants with darker skin tones, a problem that facial recognition software has also faced. “They were having trouble with darker skin,” said Kristie De Peña, the director of immigration policy at the Niskanen Center. “But it does sound like they have implemented some fixes to that.” The app itself does not include facial recognition technology, she said, adding that many media outlets published misleading reports about the app’s photo component. The app takes a live photo to ensure the user is a real person and is not taking a picture of another picture. CBP officers then compare the image with any other photos of the person on file.

The technology cannot entirely prevent illegal crossings. Asylum-seekers tired of waiting for an appointment may cross between ports of entry in hopes of being processed and released with a notice to report to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Yuleima Rodriquez-Beleno and her family arrived at Mission: Border Hope on March 30. The family left Colombia because of gang threats about two weeks earlier, crossing the Rio Grande into Eagle Pass. “She didn’t know of any application,” said Julissa Gonzalez, who serves at the shelter and translated our conversation.

Immigrants who do not qualify for Title 42 exemptions will most likely continue trying to evade authorities. “The intention of the application is to create order on the border,” Ruiz Soto said. “That has happened in some places but not everywhere. How do you incentivize people to use the application when it’s been so frustrating for many?”

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

Sign up to receive Compassion, WORLD’s free weekly email newsletter on poverty fighting and criminal justice.

Please wait while we load the latest comments...