Hours before dawn, migrants at one of Mexico’s largest shelters wake up and go online, hoping to secure an appointment to try to apply for asylum in the United States. The daily ritual resembles a race for tickets to a major concert when online sales begin, with about 100 people swiping their thumbs over their phone screens.
New appointments are available every day at 6 a.m., but migrants are hampered by error messages from the US government’s CBPOne mobile app, which has been overloaded since the Biden administration launched it on Jan. 12.
Many can’t login. Others may enter their information and select a date, only to have the screen freeze at the final confirmation. Some receive a message saying they must be near a crossing with the United States, even though they are already in Mexico’s largest border city.
At the Embajadores de Jesús shelter in Tijuana, only two of more than 1,000 migrants got appointments in the first two weeks, says Gustavo Banda, the director.
“We’re going to keep trying, but for us, it’s a failure,” says Erlin Rodríguez, from Honduras, after another unsuccessful attempt to get an appointment for himself, his wife, and their two children on a Sunday before dawn. “There’s no hope”.
The Mexican Mareni Montiel was delighted after selecting a date and time for her two children, but then she did not receive a confirmation code. “From there, she goes back to zero,” adds Montiel, 32, who has waited for four months at the shelter, where the sound of roosters fills the crisp morning air at the end of a dirt road.
CBPOne came to replace an opaque patchwork of waivers to a public health order known as Title 42, under which the US government has denied migrants’ rights to seek asylum since March 2020. People who have arrived from other Countries are waiting in Mexico pending a waiver or policy change, unless they attempt to cross into the United States illegally.
If the app is successful, asylum seekers could use CBPOne — even if Title 42 is lifted — as a safe and orderly alternative to illegal entry, which reached the highest level ever recorded in the United States in December. It could also discourage large encampments on the Mexican side of the border, where migrants cling to unrealistic hopes.
But a number of complaints have surfaced:
Applications are only available in English and Spanish, languages that many of the migrants do not speak. Guerline Jozef, executive director of the non-profit Haitian Bridge Alliance, says authorities failed “to take into account the most basic fact: Haiti’s national language is Haitian Creole.” The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) says it plans to release a Creole version in February. It has not announced other languages.
Some migrants, particularly those with darker skin, say the app rejects required photos, which blocks or slows down the apps. CBP admits that it is aware of some technical issues, especially when new appointments become available, but that it can also be due to users’ phones. It says that a live photo is required for each login as a security measure.
The problem has affected Haitians the most, says Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, director of The Sidewalk School, an organization that helps immigrants in Reynosa and Matamoros, on the other side of the Rio Grande Valley, in Texas. Previously, about 80% of migrants admitted to seek asylum in the area were Haitian, Rangel-Samponaro says. On Friday she counted 10 black people among the 270 admitted to Matamoros.
“We brought construction lights to light up their faces,” he says. “But those images couldn’t get past the photo processing part either… They can’t get past the photo processing part.”
The requirement that migrants apply in northern and central Mexico does not always work. CBP stresses that the app will not work properly if the location feature is turned off. It also tries to determine if signals are bouncing off cell towers in the United States.
But not only does the app fail to recognize that some people are at the border, applicants from outside the region have been able to circumvent the location requirement by using virtual private networks. The agency said it found a fix for that and updated the system.
Some advocates are disappointed that there is no explicit special consideration for LGBTQ applicants. Migrants are asked if they have a physical or mental illness, disability, pregnancy, are homeless, face a threat of harm, or are under the age of 21 or over 70.
Even so, LGBTQ migrants are not disqualified. At Casa de Luz, a Tijuana shelter for about 50 LGBTQ migrants, four quickly got appointments. A transgender woman from El Salvador said that she did not check any boxes when she was asked about specific vulnerabilities.
The United States began blocking asylum seekers under President Donald Trump on the grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19, though Title 42 is not uniformly applied and many considered vulnerable are exempt.
From President Joe Biden’s first year in office until last week, CBP organized waivers through advocates, churches, attorneys and migrant shelters, without publicly identifying them or saying how many slots were available. The arrangement sparked accusations of favoritism and corruption. In December, CBP cut ties with a group that billed Russian migrants.
For CBPOne to work, enough people need to get appointments to discourage illegal border crossing, says Leon Fresco, an immigration attorney and former adviser to Democrat Chuck Schumer, Senate Majority Leader.
“If these appointments start to stretch out to two, three, or four months, it’s going to be a lot harder to keep it going,” he adds. “If people don’t get through, they won’t use the program.”
CBP, which schedules appointments up to two weeks in advance, declines to say how many people make it inside. However, Enrique Lucero, director of immigration affairs for the city of Tijuana, said US authorities accept 200 a day at San Diego, the largest border crossing. That’s about the same as the old system, but well below the number of Ukrainians prosecuted after the Russian invasion last year.
Josué Miranda, 30, has been at Embajadores de Jesús for five months and prefers the previous system of working through advocacy groups. The shelter compiled an internal waiting list that moved slowly but let her know where he stood. Banda, the director of the shelter, says that 100 were selected every week. Miranda packed his suitcases for himself, his wife and his three children, believing that his turn was imminent until the new online portal was launched. Now, the Salvadoran migrant has no idea when his opportunity will come, if he does. Still, he plans to keep trying through CBPOne.
“The problem is the system: it is saturated and it is chaos,” he explains after another morning of failed attempts.