Why a glitchy app may be standing in the way of thousands of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S.

Thousands of migrants seeking to cross the southern U.S. border this week after the government lifts its COVID-19 public health measures may be facing one more hurdle in their quest for asylum: a glitchy cell phone app.

Biden administration set to lift public health order that prevented migrants from seeking asylum

Migrants line up to board a bus in the U.S.

Thousands of migrants seeking to cross the southern U.S. border this week after the government lifts its COVID-19 public health measures may be facing one more hurdle in their quest for asylum: a glitchy cell phone app.

Under new rules by the Biden administration, asylum seekers must use the CBP One mobile app to book an appointment at an official U.S. point of entry before they can make an asylum claim. But this change to the asylum seeking process has faced criticisms from migrants migrant advocates, human rights groups and even some Democrats, who say the app is plagued with errors and that this revised asylum-seeking process is unfair.

"You're putting a life saving process — which people have a legal right to do, which is the process to to seek asylum in the United States when they reach the country — basically at the mercy of a technology that sometimes has its faults," said Raul Pinto, a senior staff attorney at the D.C.-based American Immigration Council, an immigration advocacy group.

"You're putting people's lives and safety at the mercy of that," he said.

To book an appointment, migrants are asked to create a profile in the app that would include a picture and information like name, date of birth and nationality. But the app has faced numerous complaints about technical issues, including problems with accessibility

A screen from the CBP One mobile app is seen on a smartphone.

Trump-era policy set to expire

"There certainly have been glitches," said Doris Meissner. From 1993 to 2000, she was the commissioner of the now defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was later split into three federal government immigration agencies including U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

"The most important one is that there are many more people applying than there are slots available," said Meissner, who now heads the U.S. immigration policy program at the D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute think tank.

Back in March 2020 during the Trump administration, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a public health order under the rarely used Title 42 clause. It allowed the U.S. to circumvent its immigration laws and turn away thousands of asylum seekers, citing concerns that they could have COVID-19 and spread the virus within the country.

This week, on May 11, the Biden administration is expected to stop using Title 42 when they let the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration expire, meaning asylum seekers will no longer be restricted from crossing the border.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has predicted that the expiration of Title 42 will also lead to more than 10,000 migrants arriving at the southern border each day. The Texas border cities of El Paso, Laredo and Brownsville have already declared local states of emergency in recent days to tap into federal funds and provide additional resources to prepare for the anticipated influx.

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But some of those asylum seekers could now be stymied by the CBP One mobile app.

The app, created to schedule appointments for cargo inspection, was first launched on Oct. 28, 2020, by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Its use was expanded in January of this year when migrants were able to use the app to make appointments to seek exemptions from Title 42. As well, Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans could use the app to apply to travel into the U.S. on a temporary basis.

In February, the Biden administration announced it was further expanding the app's use.

Previously, asylum seekershad to physically cross the border at an official point of entry in order to claim asylum. But under the administration's new migration rule, those seeking to cross the southern border must use the app to submit biometric information and schedule appointments at an official point of entry.

People walk on a trail next to a high, wide fence with a stretch of land on the other side.

As well, migrants must travel from their home countries and be physically located within central or northern Mexico to schedule an appointment using the CBP One app, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

"If you just show up between a ports of entry and you haven't used the CBP One app, there will be a presumption that you are illegally entering the country, ineligible for asylum and subject simply to expedited removal and not permitted to ask for asylum," Meissner said.

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said in a recent interview with CBS's 60 Minutes that those who can prove they have an urgent medical condition or are fleeing imminent danger won't have to use the app.

App aims to 'discourage irregular migration'

The purpose of the app, according to a statement by the Department of Homeland Security, is to "discourage irregular migration by encouraging migrants to use lawful, safe, and orderly processes for entering the United States."

Luis Miranda, a spokesperson for the department, told the Washington Post in February that the app "cuts out the smugglers, decreasing migrant exploitation and improving safety and security, in addition to making the process more efficient."

A U.S. Border Patrol agent begins the intake process for migrants from Colombia near the port of entry in Hidalgo Hidalgo, Texas, Thursday, May 4, 2023.

But Pinto, the lawyer at the American Immigration Council, said there's been a lack of information about the app, and more specifically, a lack of information for potential users.

"I think that has been frustrating because people don't necessarily know all of the risks and all of the mistakes and all of the errors that they could be getting once they utilize the app."

Patrick Giuliani, a policy analyst at the El-Paso, Texas, based migrant advocacy group Hope Border Institute, said he has spoken to people who have been trying for months to use the app to make an appointment, with no luck.

"We have to realize that this is a system that relies on people to have the right type of cell phone, that has a stable internet connection … to schedule an appointment in which there are limited spots per day," he said, adding that the app is available in English, Spanish, Haitian Creole, Portuguese and Russian, but poses problems for those who speak only Indigenous languages.

As well, there have been facial recognition issues for migrants with darker skin, who have had trouble uploading their photos to the app.

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Human rights groups concerned

Giuliani said he understands the administration wants to try to create some sort of order and structure, but that this process is really much like a lottery and that even with all the new technology, people still struggle to get appointments.

As Chelsea Sachau, an attorney with the Arizona-based Florence Project, which provides legal aid to migrants and asylum seekers, described the situation to the Washington Post: "It's like trying to get tickets for a Taylor Swift concert, only it's not a concert, and you're trying to save your family's life."

Human rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have also expressed concerns, saying this policy would "almost certainly result in unlawfully blocking asylum seekers from freely accessing ports and instead force them to wait for limited appointments through CBP One."

"This aspect of the rule will also cause devastating consequences for the most vulnerable asylum seekers," it said in a statement. "Subject to narrow exceptions, the proposed rule would bar asylum to anyone who does not secure a CBP One appointment."

A man in a dark suit and red tie answers a question during an interview.

Democrats urge resolution to 'accessibility issues'

In March, nearly three dozen House Democrats signed a letter to Mayorkas, the secretary of Homeland Security, urging him to immediately resolve the "serious equity and accessibility issues" migrants face with the app as the sole means of seeking asylum.

On Friday, in what appeared to be a response to some of the criticisms, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced that CBP One would address volume issues.

It said it would also increase the number of appointments available to approximately 1,000 each day, and will prioritize those who have waited the longest.


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

    With files from The Associated Press

    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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