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The Biden administration's 'buggy' asylum app

By Theara Coleman,

2023-03-15

U.S. border officials stopped hundreds of migrants from entering the country after a large group attempted to storm the border. Many of them expressed frustration with an app the Biden administration promised would streamline the process for seeking asylum.

What is the CBP One app?

The Biden administration announced in January that asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border could use a government mobile app to enter their information in advance for an appointment to petition for asylum. ​​The CBP One app, short for Customs and Border Protection, was initially launched in 2020 as a way for people traveling into the country legally to submit their documents early and for "non-governmental organizations to request humanitarian entry for certain migrants," Reuters explained. The administration gave migrants direct access to the app as a pre-screening tool to apply for exceptions to Title-42 , the pandemic-era border policy restricting asylum access.

The app is available in multiple languages and will allow migrants waiting in central and northern Mexico to upload their personal information and a photo to request an appointment at one of eight ports of entry in Texas, Arizona, and California, per a fact sheet . The CPB claimed that the app "streamlines the experience" at these ports, may shorten wait times, and allows for a "safe and orderly process at POEs for all travelers." The app was part of Biden's recent shifts in border policy , meant to crack down on people crossing the border illegally.

Does the app work?

Despite the administration's promises, the app is plagued with glitches that seem to be standing in the way of migrants getting access to an appointment. One issue is the competition for one of the 700 to 800 available slots. "Advocates estimate there are more than 100,000 people seeking entry," The Washington Post says, and the appointments fill up within minutes daily. Agents are enforcing a rule that requires applicants to file for each member of their family, which Reuters says is "encouraging parents to register for themselves, hoping their spouses and children can join later."

"It is extremely difficult, nearly impossible, for some of these families to get an appointment together," Karla Marisol Vargas, a senior attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, told Reuters . "These are just very difficult choices."

Another barrier is the need for quality internet access. "WiFi service in northern Mexico is spotty at best and, at worst, nonexistent," the Post writes. While applicants might be able to log in, "the low bandwidth falters the deeper into the app one goes." Many say the service completely drops when they attempt to take photos or upload their information. The challenges lead them to make risky decisions seeking out service in areas where migrants are vulnerable to cartel attacks or extortion.

Immigration advocates say the CBP One app poses additional issues for Black and darker-complected migrants. While many Black migrants in Mexican border cities are from Haiti , the app's instructions were not initially available in Creole, and "migrants with darker skin said they had more difficulty with the facial-capture feature" used to submit the required photo for an appointment, per the Post .

"People are trying for hours to simply take a picture, and the app could not recognize their faces," Guerline M. Jozef, the co-founder and executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, told The New York Times . "Migrants were trying everything. In tents, it was too dark; outside, the sun was too bright. None of it was working."

What are commentators saying?

The administration wants to use the app to take credit for a reduction in border detentions, the BBC writes. Indeed, January's numbers were down 42 percent from those in December 2022. "But activists say at least some of the decline in detentions can be attributed to the app's technical issues."

Biden's reliance on a "notoriously buggy" app to handle asylum application shows just how unhealthy our immigration system has become, Dara Lind, a senior fellow at the American Immigration Council, writes in The New York Times . "A system that cared about maximizing orderly asylum claims would focus on scaling up the capacity at ports of entry to conduct orderly asylum interviews."

"Fleeing for your life? There's an app for that," writes Jack Herrera at Texas Monthly . CBP One is just a "digital version" of paper notebooks asylum seekers used during Donald Trump's presidency to create "an unofficial, but quite formal, list" of where each migrant was in the long line of those seeking asylum. "If you're in northern Mexico, [the app] will give you a lot of hope," immigration lawyer Wilfredo Allen tells Herrera. "But it's going to be a difficult road."

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