The U.S. government’s tech-based immigration policies are blocking asylum-seekers from safely entering the country through U.S.-Mexico ports of entry, according to a new report(opens in a new tab) by refugee and humanitarian aid organization the International Rescue Committee (IRC)(opens in a new tab).
The IRC’s working group of U.S., Mexican, and international NGOs found that new U.S. regulations, which prioritize the use of a Customs and Border Protection app(opens in a new tab) to process border entries, “renders most asylum-seekers ineligible for asylum(opens in a new tab), unless they use the CBP One smartphone app to schedule one of the limited number of appointments, or have sought and been denied asylum in a country of transit with very few exceptions.”
The policy’s additional limited allowances exacerbate a widening gap caused by the newly-instituted digital pathway to asylum, an issue noted by(opens in a new tab) several human rights(opens in a new tab) organizations early in the tech’s implementation.
“Hinging access to seek and enjoy asylum on whether people fleeing for their lives can book an appointment on a smartphone app is neither right nor practical,” the report asserts. “The CBP One app requires significant improvements, but even with those fixes in place, it should never be the only means to effectively request protection at a U.S. port of entry.”
The CBP One app was originally launched in 2020 as an additional, but not mandatory, portal for asylum-seekers. However, it has since become one of the only ways for migrants to access and confirm application requirements for establishing asylum in the United States. And as of May 2023, it’s now a mandatory part of President Joe Biden’s recent asylum policy(opens in a new tab).
There are only a few exemptions to using the CBP app to process applications, prompting Amnesty International and other refugee advocates to call reliance on the app a violation of the United States’ international human rights commitments(opens in a new tab). They’ve also noted a concerning lack of exemptions for “populations with circumstantial vulnerabilities, such as LGBTI people, families with small children, or others, such as Black, Brown and Indigenous populations, that may face particular risk waiting in Mexico” as well as a widespread lack of access to cellphones, stable Wi-Fi, and reliable information that poses additional hurdles for migrants.
According to the IRC, only a limited number of asylum requests were processed without prescheduled appointments between May 11 and June 12, 2023. More commonly, U.S. and Mexican authorities restricted asylum-seekers without CBP One appointments from physically reaching U.S. ports of entry to make protection requests. While the number of app-based appointments increased in June, the organization said, government agents were still “metering” asylum-seekers, causing long lines, waitlists, and informal encampments near ports of entry. The IRC and its partners also found that many people waiting to request asylum lacked adequate and accurate information on the new “asylum ban” rule(opens in a new tab) and the need for a CBP One appointment.
Advocates have also flagged digital privacy issues(opens in a new tab). “The way in which the CBP One application works is deeply problematic,” said Amnesty International Americas Director Erika Guevara-Rosas in a May policy briefing. “Asylum-seekers are forced to install the application on their mobile devices, which enables U.S. Customs and Border Protection to collect data about their location by ‘pinging’ their phones. The U.S. must ensure that asylum-seekers have due process rights regarding refugee status determination procedures and that they are not returned to places where they may be at risk of harm.”
The latest report, released in partnership with Servicio Jesuita a Refugiados México, Refugee Health Alliance, Kino Border Initiative, Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, Espacio Migrante, and Immigrant Defenders Law Center, presents findings related to many of these concerns. The data was collected at six U.S. ports of entry during the month (May 11 to June 12) following the end of the country’s pandemic-era immigration policy known as Title 42(opens in a new tab).
Title 42 is part of the 1944 Public Health Service Act granting the government the ability to take emergency action to stop the spread of communicable diseases. It was invoked by President Donald Trump during the early outbreak of COVID-19 to limit border crossings, halt asylum applications, and expel asylum-seekers who had already entered the United States. It had remained in effect under the Biden administration until May 11.
On May 11, President Joe Biden’s new border plan took effect(opens in a new tab), which still includes elements from Title 42-era policy, including the CBP One app’s enforcement, a hyper-expedited deportation program,(opens in a new tab) and a “third country transit ban”(opens in a new tab) that have all been heavily criticized by advocates. Biden’s new plan still requires asylum-seekers passing through another country to reach the U.S.-Mexico border to first file a claim in the country they traveled through, and threatens those found ineligible for asylum with a five-year ban from re-entering the United States.
In its recommendations, the working group urges the United States government to fully restore access to the asylum process, increase agency staff (not military personnel) and other resources to ports of entry, and rescind the “asylum ban” to establish “a safe, humane, and orderly process at ports of entry.”
To address common information gaps between policymakers and asylum-seekers, the IRC and humanitarian aid organization Mercy Corps launched the 2015 Signpost(opens in a new tab) initiative to support the digital needs of refugees and asylum-seekers. Signpost currently hosts three programs that assist migrants across parts of Latin America: InfoDigna(opens in a new tab), InfoPa’lante(opens in a new tab), and CuéntaNos.(opens in a new tab) Due to an increase in need, the IRC announced it would be expanding InfoDigna services(opens in a new tab) to ensure more migrants have access to accurate information before applying for entry.