As officials, media and the public watch on both sides of the US-Mexico border to see what the day’s border policy changes will bring, a Venezuelan asylum seeker started Thursday at the Espacio Migrante shelter in Tijuana as he had experienced every day since his arrival about a month ago.
Ronald, 21, wakes up early, brushes his teeth and makes sure his phones are ready for the intense minutes around 8 a.m. of tapping and refreshing that have become commonplace for migrants across the city. That’s because of a smartphone app called CBP One that launched in January as a way to schedule appointments to request asylum at ports of entry.
But as the moment approached to begin the daily ritual of toggling screens, Ronald’s phones kicked him out of the application. Loops of error messages blocked him from entering again. Others around him began to experience the same behavior. He and the other asylum seekers interviewed were not fully identified because of their vulnerable situations.
The app, which has been heavily criticized by human rights groups, underwent a major update on Thursday to coincide with the end of Title 42 — a border policy that for the past three years has blocked asylum seekers from approaching the ports of entry to request protection and empowered border officials to bypass asylum screenings and deport those crossing without permission. Pandemic-related public health orders that put the policy in place expired Thursday night.
“We know something will change today. We thought things would get better, but they turned out to be worse,” Ronald said in Spanish. “We can’t even get in. It’s frustrating.”
Customs and Border Protection did not respond to requests for comment.
The app is a centerpiece of the Biden administration’s new border policy to be released this week. But if Thursday is a hint of what’s to come, following the rules will continue to challenge people trying to flee for their lives.
When CBP One launched in January, it was used for asylum seekers to request Title 42 exemptions and enter ports of entry through scheduled appointments. It replaced an exemption system where shelters and nonprofits referred vulnerable individuals to CBP for appointments. That system has become corrupt, with some asylum seekers paying as much as $2,000 for spots on the list.
The Biden administration said CBP One would democratize the process, allowing asylum seekers in northern Mexico to request appointments without someone in the middle choosing who gets in. But the app has had its share of problems, including confusing error messages, performance problems with the number of asylum seekers logged in at the same time and logistics prioritizing asylum seekers who have the resources to have newer phones and strong internet connections.
The Department of Homeland Security maintains that the app works.
“We’ve seen tremendous acceptance of the CBP One app,” said DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. “It has proven successful. We identified the glitches, and we did it not unilaterally, exclusively, but also by talking to individuals who used the app, by talking to migrants here in the United States who arrived in the United States, as well as actually going to Mexico and meeting with migrants to understand the challenges.
“The biggest challenge with respect to the CBP One app is not a technological challenge but rather the fact that we have more migrants than we have the ability to make appointments,” he added.
With the new rules coming into force on Friday, the app will become an even more important part of the asylum claim than before. The rules would make those attempting to cross US soil without an appointment either at or between ports of entry generally ineligible for asylum.
There are several ways to request exemptions from the requirement to use the app, but lawyers and human rights workers worry that people will be left out.
Nicole Ramos, director of Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project, called CBP One a “senseless disaster.”
He said his organization has made requests to CBP to process some asylum seekers outside of the app because they can’t use the phones to get an appointment or their circumstances don’t allow them to wait time. which is required to obtain one.
She gave the example of a woman who fled a domestic violence situation in Mexico. The woman was placed in a secret shelter for victims where only those at high risk can be placed. The woman had to leave her phone behind to escape from her abuser, and the shelter does not allow phones for safety reasons. He was not allowed to leave the confidential location without a safety escort, Ramos said.
“I don’t know where this place is. I’m not allowed to know,” Ramos said. “His abuser threatened family members who had to move – with weapons trying to find him. And CBP’s response to that was, ‘He needs to use CBP One.’”
Ramos said people looking to make money also used CBP One by getting appointments and then selling them to asylum seekers. Once the asylum seeker has paid, the scammer cancels the appointment, and the asylum seeker rushes in to take the open slot.
On Wednesday afternoon, CBP announced an update to the app that will change the way the scheduling system works. Instead of fighting for an appointment at the same time every morning, asylum seekers can register on the app and then be notified when an appointment becomes available for them about a day to confirm or cancel.
“Allowing noncitizens a longer period of time to request and confirm their appointment will reduce time pressure and dependency on internet speed and connectivity,” CBP said in a statement announcing the change.
The agency is adding about 260 additional appointments along the border, bringing the total to 1,000 at participating ports of entry.
“A percentage of daily available appointments will be allocated to the earliest registered CBP One profiles, so non-citizens who have been trying to get appointments the longest will be prioritized,” the agency said.
For a mother and her two daughters who have been waiting at the Templo Embajadores de Jesus shelter for about eight months, change is the miracle they’ve been waiting for. They finally got an appointment on Thursday.
“It wasn’t easy because the app had a lot of errors, but God surprised me today with this blessing,” said the woman.
He was among some at the shelter – which, according to Pastor Gustavo Banda Aceves is currently home to more than 1,600 people – to finally book appointments.
But for one Honduran woman who has been staying at the same shelter waiting for more than six months, the app did the same thing as many at the Espacio Migrante shelter.
“I think you have to be lucky to get an appointment,” said the woman, who had her 12-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son with her. “I ask God why this is happening to me.”
Ronald is also trying to make an appointment for the three. His cousin and his daughter fled to Venezuela with him. He said he was persecuted there because of his sexual orientation.
“I don’t want to be here. I want to be at peace in my country, but I can’t,” Ronald said. “I left my family, my friends, my studies – everything – because I couldn’t be free from that.”
Only three people at the Espacio Migrante shelter were able on Thursday to see the new screen that ordered them to wait for an appointment to become available. Others followed the path that Ronald repeated, hoping for a different outcome.
When he tried to log in again, the app said it needed to update. When he navigated to the app store to update it, the app said it had already been updated. When he opened the app again, it threw an error. Occasionally, it lets him enter his email, password and a one-time code sent to him. The app will briefly cycle through the CBP logo, and then he’ll find himself back on the log-in page.
“It failed,” said a Haitian man, who was suffering from the same issue. After a while he gave up to eat breakfast.
Ronald missed breakfast with the rest of the shelter, sitting by the window, tapping out the same error messages. Finally, still holding and tapping his phone, he got up to stand in the kitchen and eat while he tried to get CBP One to work.
When asked how long he would try, he said, “Until they let me log in again.”