On a recent morning, a woman from central Mexico held a phone to her face outside the Tijuana municipal building and took a photo. It was the first day a US government phone app offered port-of-entry appointments for migrants hoping to seek asylum.
Error, says the application.
A city official rushed to help her. Together they took another photo close to his face. Error again.
The official moved her to spot where the dappled shadows of the trees did not reach her face. They took another photo. Another mistake.
The woman’s experience was similar to many migrants across the city who have tried using the app, called CBP One, now the only way to enter a port of entry to seek protection from states. -United. The facial recognition technology used to submit a photo to the app has been particularly error-prone since its launch on January 12, and it’s one of many issues migrants and their advocates have noted since the deployment of the application.
CBP One is part of a series of border policy changes that continue to move the United States away from the international norm that migrants are allowed to seek asylum once they are on the soil of the country where they live. are considering applying for protection. Many of these changes, including CBP One, mean those with more resources have easier access to asylum checks while many of the most vulnerable cases are left out.
Lack of reliable internet and limited digital fluency, as well as language barriers, are among the issues that already separate who can get appointments in the new process and who can’t.
The app is now the only way for migrants to apply for exemptions to Title 42, a policy that bars asylum seekers and other undocumented migrants from entering US soil and directs border officials to deport those who do it without authorization, skipping the generally legally required conditions. screening to see if they are eligible for coverage.
The exemptions are meant to be for particularly vulnerable migrants, such as those with immediate medical or security concerns while waiting in Mexico. Asylum seekers must certify that they meet at least one vulnerability category when they submit their claims, but they do not know until they arrive at CBP at the port of entry whether they will be accepted.
On the first day migrants were able to request appointments in the CBP One app, the Tijuana Migrant Services Office set up a Wi-Fi zone outside the municipal building with officials ready to help. migrants to submit their information to customs and border protection.
A small number of migrants found the support tent, and officials accompanied them through the process. Officials even took their height and weight measurements to be as accurate as possible.
By mid-afternoon, officials had managed to complete the process for three families, a total of nine people, according to Enrique Lucero, the head of the office.
But appointments fill up quickly.
A 22-year-old woman who had fled the Mexican state of Michoacán began the process with city officials that morning, but by the time they received the request to accept photos for her and her three children, there were no more appointments. , she says.
Over a week later, she still hadn’t been able to reserve one. She said that in the shelter where she is staying, the app is moving very slowly, probably due to poor internet quality.
When it launched the app as a way for migrants to apply for entry, CBP said it would offer two weeks of appointments at a time. This means that every morning at 6 a.m., one more appointment day opens.
There are 200 appointments a day at the San Ysidro port of entry, according to CBP. The agency declined to say how many were available across the border.
To complicate matters further, as appointments on the app filled up, some migrants only saw available slots at remote entry points, according to Marcos Tamariz, deputy head of mission in Mexico for Doctors Without Borders. . That meant some of Tijuana’s appointments were booked by migrants in Matamoros, a town on the eastern end of the border across from Brownsville, Texas.
The roads along the border from Matamoros to Tijuana are some of the most dangerous in Mexico, he said, “so asking them to move from one place to another is not as easy as there is. appears”.
“There’s a lot of frustration behind this and not enough advice or information that would allow people to make the best decision,” he said.
Inequality and the Internet
The use of the app, especially when coupled with the rapid disappearance of appointments, has led to disparities.
People with weak internet connection find it difficult to operate the app. While the city of Tijuana has boosted the Wi-Fi network of a city-run shelter it opened late last year to accommodate deported Venezuelans, migrants in other shelters or in the street often have little access to reliable internet. Some do not have cell phones.
The first appointments offered by the app were Thursday.
That morning, the Union-Tribune observed mostly groups of Russians showing up for appointments as migrants arrived at El Chaparral Square on the south side of the port of entry and made their way to the special entrance. for the CBP One treatment.
Russian asylum seekers generally have the financial means to stay in hotels in Tijuana rather than shelters, which means they have access to better internet.
As the Russians passed, a man, his wife and their four children who had recently fled Michoacán sat on the sidewalk. The man was holding two phones, trying to navigate the app. The first pages were in English.
Once he got past them, he still struggled even though the rest of the app was in Spanish. After missing the link to create an account for several minutes, he finally managed to enter an email address. He waited for the confirmation email, but it never came. He tried again, still no email. It wasn’t clear what the man should do differently.
On the same day, at the Templo Embajadores de Jesus migrant shelter, where more than 1,000 migrants are waiting to seek asylum in the United States, only one of those interviewed by the Union-Tribune had heard of the application – and only because she had been to the city building.
The shelter had had more immediate issues to deal with in addition to the application. Rains that flooded much of San Diego and Tijuana shortly after the app launched had destroyed the road leading to the canyon shelter.
These storms also created more difficult conditions for migrants waiting inside. New arrivals at the Embajadores shelter sleep on mats on the floor until the beds become free. They shared stories of the building flooding, soaking them and their bedding. Many had fallen ill because of it.
Since then, none of those interviewed by the Union-Tribune has been able to secure appointments. They try every morning at 6am, but it’s always full.
The application is even more complicated for those who do not speak English or Spanish. Even though Haitians are one of the nationalities recently included in the deportations, the app is not available in Haitian Creole.
“We are already seeing rampant misinformation and scams around this program, and the lack of equity around language access opens yet another avenue for the exploitation of Haitian migrants who are left confused, frustrated and in limbo” said Guerline Jozef, executive director of Alliance Haitienne du Pont. “We are extremely disappointed that once again the system continues to frustrate black migrants seeking protection.”
Erika Pinheiro, executive director of the nonprofit Al Otro Lado legal services, expressed concern about reports from migrants in Tijuana that those with darker skin, including black and indigenous migrants, had a particularly hard time get the photo part of the app. work.
Studies facial recognition software have shown that the technology tends to have more errors when screening these demographic groups.
Evicted and pending
Jesús, a Cuban who asked not to be fully identified due to his current vulnerable situation, is looking forward to his CBP One appointment.
Jesús fled Cuba in December and was deported from the United States in early January.
He left because of government surveillance and harassment and the effect it had on his washing machine repair business, he said.
“I’ll sum it up in one sentence – there is no freedom,” he said of Cuba. “There is no freedom for anything.”
He said Border Patrol agents made him throw away his belongings except for his documents when they apprehended him after crossing the Mexicali area. Then they put him on a bus and, without telling him where he was going, sent him to the border where he was deported to Tijuana.
“My world has fallen,” he said in Spanish. “I made so many sacrifices. Being sacked is something really difficult.
He stayed at the Tijuana city-run shelter converted from a sports complex. He filled out the CBP One application the first morning it was available, he said, and was able to get an appointment. His friend who tried later that day was not.
Still, he fears CBP will reject him.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Andrea Castillo contributed to this report.