'A game of chance': Migrants battle glitchy app at US border

Thursday May 11 2023
Venezuelan migrants

Venezuelan migrants browse the CBP One mobile app booking an appointment to enter the US outside the temporary stay of the National Migration Institute in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on May 5, 2023. PHOTO | HERIKA MARTINEZ | AFP


The fate of tens of thousands of people seeking asylum at the United States' southern border will, from Friday, hinge on an app that has just 2.5 stars in the App Store.

For immigration managers, a sleek and computerised way to manage the wave of people expected to arrive when Covid-era rules lapse has been tempting.

But for the poor exhausted people whose phones don't work with no access to Wi-Fi or electricity, it's just another almost-impossible hurdle.

"It's amazing that an app practically decides our lives and future," Jeremy de Pablos, a 21-year-old Venezuelan who has camped out in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez for weeks, told AFP

De Pablos, who has dark skin, said the hardest part of using the CBP One app was the facial recognition -- an issue that many migrants with darker complexions have pointed to.

"It's like a game of chance. It recognizes who it wants to."


President Joe Biden's administration launched the Custom and Border Protection app in January, as it eyed a way to manage the expected chaos when Title 42 expires overnight Thursday into Friday.

cbp 1

A migrant shows the CBP One App from the US Customs and Border Protection agency. PHOTO | GILLES CLARENNE | AFP

The measure was imposed under Donald Trump with a stated purpose of keeping those infected with Covid-19 out of the country, allowing border guards to refuse entry to anyone.

In practice it has been a quick and easy way to avoid accepting asylum claims.

Read: Tanzania arrests 63 Ethiopian migrants

But with the ending of the Covid emergency, Title 42 is finished and replaced instead with regular migration policies that the Biden administration says will offer pathways to legitimate asylum seekers and harsh penalties to those who do not follow the rules.

Compulsory registration on app

From Friday would-be migrants must register their name, date of birth, details of their travel documents, and upload a photograph on CBP One. The app can also log their location and their device details.

But old, outdated phones make the process hard. 

It's harder still for those whose phones were broken or stolen on the long trek north.

Antonio Sanchez Ventura lives on the streets of Ciudad Juarez with nothing, eating only what he can scrounge.

His sole focus now is to raise the money to buy a phone and download the app.

"It is the dream of every human being to cross to the US to help their relatives," he said.

Ciudad Juarez is a tangle of tents and desperation, where people who have made impossible journeys scrape by on hope and charity.

Those who have phones search for exposed wires from streetlights to charge them and save every penny they have to buy credit to access the internet.

But the challenge does not end there. 

"Look, it's stuck," said Ronald Huerta, a Venezuelan who on Wednesday couldn't get past the application's language settings. 

‘A nightmare and a torment’

A few meters away, Ana Paola, a 14-year-old Venezuelan, cried disconsolately because the application had been updated and all the information for her family had been deleted. 

illegal migrants

Venezuelan migrants resting at National Migration Institute in Ciudad Juarez near the US border. PHOTO | HERIKA MARTINEZ | AFP

"I'm tired! I can't take it anymore!" the teenager shouted as she repeatedly clicked "submit" to recreate the family's profiles -- receiving an "Error 500" message every time.

"It's been a nightmare and a torment. This application has caused us emotional, psychological damage," said her father, Juan Pavon.

As Title 42 enters its final few hours, some migrants debate just sneaking across the border, hoping to avoid detection long enough to reach some kind of safety.

Read: How free movement of people across Africa can work

For some, the strategy works.

"I waited for so long that I got fed up. There was no way to get an appointment," said Luis Quintana, a Venezuelan who climbed through a hole in the wall at El Paso after three months on the streets of Ciudad Juarez.

For Raul Pinto, an attorney with the American Immigration Council, the app's many problems add another layer of unnecessary despair.

"It's frustrating that this important process is left at the mercy of technology that can often be glitchy and that is not going to be accessible by everyone," he told AFP.

The US government said this week it would be rolling out updates to the app and increasing the number of appointments available in a bid to ease the logjam.

Pinto was hopeful that things would get better, but said there were many aspects of the process that were beyond fixing.

"We are very disappointed that there's not an alternative way for people to access this very important and potentially lifesaving process," he said.