Chelsea Sachau, a lawyer with an Arizona-based nonprofit, had to help distract a squirming toddler and keep him still enough for a live photo, which is required in a new system for asylum appointments through a U.S. government smartphone app.
Hundreds of miles away, Gaby Muñoz, another nonprofit worker based in Ciudad Juárez, watched a migrant spend almost an hour trying to take a photo of herself that the app would accept.
And for many migrants seeking to make their asylum claim without crossing the border unlawfully, by the time they reach the screen to grab a coveted appointment slot, none were available, providers said in interviews.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection expanded the capability of its CBP One app earlier this month to allow migrants to make direct appointments to request protection at a port of entry, which the Biden administration touted as part of its plans to address a record number of unlawful U.S-Mexico border crossings.
But providers along the border say the app disadvantages the most vulnerable asylum-seekers who may not have access to a smartphone or consistent WiFi, or the tech savvy to navigate the platform. They described constant glitches, limited foreign language options, and a lack of transparency about how many appointments will be available each day.
“As far as the user experience of the app, we have mixed feelings,” said Sachau, managing attorney at the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project. “Ultimately, access to asylum needs to be equitable, fair and free.”
Joanna Williams, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, said she has “no idea” how migrants who are not working with a nonprofit like her “would be navigating some of these different challenges.”
“This app needs somebody available for tech support, and the U.S. government is not available for tech support, so we’ve become the tech support,” Williams said.
The app, developed in 2020 for various other uses by travelers, now allows migrants to directly schedule appointments at ports of entry to request the opportunity to seek asylum.
The ports of entry have largely been closed to asylum-seekers for nearly three years under a pandemic-related directive known as Title 42, which has prompted migrants to seek asylum by crossing the border in between the ports.
Since Jan. 18, each morning at 9 a.m. Eastern Time, migrants are invited to sign into the app in hope of securing an appointment slot for 13 days in the future, which could be offered at one of eight ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border. The app’s function for asylum-seekers is also “geofenced,” or geographically limited, to areas in northern and central Mexico to prevent fraudulent claims.
Providers said appointments typically move quickly. They also pointed to a slew of issues with the app that have undermined its accessibility. The app often freezes while migrants attempt to navigate it, and the facial comparison feature, which requires migrants to submit a live photo of themselves to verify their identities, sometimes struggles to capture migrants with darker complexions, nonprofit workers said.
Some nonprofit workers also took issue with features of the app they see as inherent accessibility barriers for migrants.
“There’s a lot of things that people who use a lot of technology take for granted that have been very complicated here at the border,” Williams, of Kino, said.
The app requires each asylum-seeker, or each family unit, to have access to a smartphone and to a WiFi network, which presents an initial challenge for migrants in crowded shelters. They also must have an email address to create an account, which providers said not all migrants have.
“It’s a glitchy app. If you don’t have really robust internet service, it’s not going to work for you,” said Erika Pinheiro, executive director of legal services organization Al Otro Lado.
“The refugee who has the resources to get a hotel with very strong internet access will be the one who gets an appointment,” Pinheiro said. “The refugee staying at a shelter where a thousand people are sharing one internet connection will not.”
Additionally, the app is only available in English or Spanish, leaving out migrants who speak French, Haitian Creole, or indigenous languages.
Guerline Jozef, the co-founder and executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, said in a news release that she is “extremely disappointed that once again the system continues to fail Black migrants in search of protection.”
The app is not only used for migrants requesting an appointment, but it also allows migrants from Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua to apply for temporary legal status from their home countries under a recently announced migration program.
“We question why the administration — who recognized the importance of language accessibility in translating the application into Spanish — thought it appropriate to launch a program geared towards Haitians without taking the most basic fact into account: the national language of Haiti is Haitian Creole,” Jozef said.
And even within the Spanish language format, drop-down menus frequently include results displayed in English, according to multiple nonprofit workers who provided screenshots to CQ Roll Call.
On one screen, the app asks for “color de los ojos,” or eye color in Spanish, but then lists possible colors in English. On another, a request for “estado civil,” or marital status, lists options in English, including Divorced, Marriage Annulled and Separated.
A CBP official, who discussed the app on the condition of anonymity, said certain technical issues with the app can be caused when many individuals are trying to access it at the same time when appointments become available. The official said the agency is working to dedicate more servers to the app.
The CBP official also said the agency has been made aware that portions of the CBP One app’s Spanish section are still in English and that it will work to address the issue.
The official declined, however, to disclose how many appointments are released each day, saying that information is law-enforcement sensitive.
In a Jan. 17 court filing, government lawyers said the number of appointments available each day “will vary” by port of entry, and that the Department of Homeland Security “does not expect to increase the maximum number of humanitarian exceptions granted per day” by those ports at the southwest border.
The expanded function of the app comes as the Biden administration faces record-high numbers of border crossings, which has fueled increasing criticism from Congress — particularly from House Republicans now in the majority.
Some nonprofit workers along the border regions have praised the concept of an app for offering migrants a direct path to seek protection that does not require them to seek out third-party assistance.
“I think it’s a good idea because it’s migrant-facing,” said Muñoz, co-director of advocacy for the nonprofit Las Americas. “If it works in the perfect world, every migrant will be able to schedule an appointment. That would be great.”
Savitri Arvey of the Women’s Refugee Commission called the app a “mixed bag” for similar reasons.
“I think it’s really positive that there’s public-facing, migrant-facing information about accessing ports of entry,” Arvey said.
But given the implementation challenges, advocates worry the app will become the only way for asylum-seekers to seek protection in this country.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a news release when the app launched that it will continue to be used for asylum-seekers even after the Title 42 order is lifted, and the CBP official said the app will be expanded to allow more asylum claims once the border restrictions terminate.
“The app, even if it was working perfectly, is inherently biased to people who have greater access to information and resources,” said Williams. “I think an app could be an option in the array of options. I think the app shouldn’t be the exclusive path for seeking asylum.”
Rep. Henry Cuellar, a moderate Democrat whose district includes Laredo, said through a spokesperson that the app “offers promise, but it has to work.”
“I am of course concerned about glitches to the system, which I am hopeful will be worked out. As we move forward, I will continue to monitor this issue,” Cuellar said.
The daily ritual can also be psychologically taxing for migrants who have already fled perilous conditions as they attempt — and fail — every morning to secure an appointment, advocates said.
Muñoz said it can also be traumatizing for migrants to have to continuously input their personal information again and again every morning. She pointed to an example of a single mom who was sexually assaulted, and is faced each morning with a question about her baby’s father.
“You have been here waiting for a year, and you try every day to get an appointment through an app,” Muñoz said. “It’s just like, you’re trying to get tickets to the concert of Taylor Swift through Ticketmaster, but in here it’s your life.”