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House Democrats call to improve border appointment app

Lawmakers say glitches, accessibility limits on CBP One app have caused 'grave harm'

Rep. Jesús "Chuy" Garcia, D-Ill., speaks at a rally in 2021 in Washington.
Rep. Jesús "Chuy" Garcia, D-Ill., speaks at a rally in 2021 in Washington. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images for CPD Action)

Nearly three dozen House Democrats raised concerns Monday about the Biden administration’s use of a smartphone application for migrants to request an appointment to seek asylum, the latest in mounting criticism from the president’s own party over his border policies.

The group of 35 Democrats, led by Reps. Jesús “Chuy” García of Illinois and Raul M. Grijalva of Arizona, called on Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to “take immediate steps to resolve the serious equity and accessibility issues migrants are facing” when using the CBP One app, in a letter sent Monday and obtained by CQ Roll Call.

The app, developed in 2020 for other uses by travelers, was recently expanded to allow migrants to schedule appointments at the U.S.-Mexico border to request the opportunity to seek asylum.

But CBP One has since come under fire by immigrant advocates and nonprofits at the border for technological glitches and accessibility limits, which they say makes it harder for migrants who speak only indigenous languages or who do not have access to smartphones or reliable internet service to access protection.

The Democrats said in their letter that their offices “have received numerous reports of unusability, inaccessibility, and inequity that have already resulted in grave harm to asylum seekers,” and they asked Mayorkas to “increase accessibility and usability of this app.”

“While technology can be helpful to facilitate processing, it should never be used to create a tiered system that treats groups differently according to economic status, gender identity, age, language, nationality, or race,” the Democrats wrote.

They suggested the department make the app more accessible for migrants who speak other languages besides the three offered — English, Spanish and Haitian Creole — and for migrants with disabilities, including those who are blind.

They also asked the department to ease the photo verification requirement of the app, after advocates reported problems for migrants with darker complexions and babies and toddlers.

The lawmakers further asked Mayorkas to “reverse course” on plans to implement a policy proposal that would limit asylum eligibility for migrants who arrive at the border and request protection, unless they had secured an appointment through the CBP One app or attempted to seek asylum in another country first, among other exceptions. That proposed asylum rule was publicly released last month.

“The administration should withdraw this rule and pursue rational policies that ensure pathways to asylum for all migrants arriving at the southern border,” the lawmakers wrote.

According to DHS, demand for appointments has continued to outstrip supply, but the department has made recent improvements to the app, including one that aims to make it easier for family units to secure an appointment as a group. As of the end of January, more than 20,000 people have scheduled appointments through the CBP One app, according to the department.

Monday’s letter is the latest example of heightening critiques the administration has faced from other Democrats over efforts to restrict asylum and reduce the number of unauthorized border crossings.

In February, Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., sent a letter to Mayorkas that asked the Department of Homeland Security to “shelve the CBP One app immediately.” Markey said the app “raises troubling issues of inequitable access to — and impermissible limits on — asylum, and has been plagued by significant technical problems and privacy concerns.”

The recently proposed asylum restrictions, paired with reports that the administration considered reinstating migrant family detention, has also frustrated members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who have complained the administration has left them out of the loop on major immigration policy developments.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a vocal proponent for passing comprehensive immigration legislation, said earlier this month that “the lack of communication on immigration-related policy decisions is an insult.”

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