On a recent morning, a woman from central Mexico held a phone up to her face outside of the Tijuana municipal building and took a picture. It was the first day that a U.S. government phone app offered port of entry appointments to migrants hoping to request asylum.
Error, the app said.
A city official rushed to help her. Together, they took another photo close to her face. Error again.
The official moved her to spot where the splotchy shadows from the trees didn’t reach her face. They took another picture. Another error.
The woman’s experience was similar to that of many migrants across the city who have been trying to use the app, called CBP One, now the only way to walk into a port of entry to request protection in the United States. The facial recognition technology used to submit a photo to the app has been particularly prone to error since it launched on Jan. 12, and it is one of many issues that migrants and their advocates have noted since the app’s rollout.
CBP One is part of a series of border policy changes that continue to shift the United States away from the international norm of migrants being allowed to apply for asylum once they’re on the soil of the country where they plan to seek protection. Many of these changes, including CBP One, have meant that those with more resources have easier access to asylum screenings while many of the most vulnerable cases are left out.
Lack of reliable internet and limited digital savvy, as well as language barriers, are among the issues that are already separating who can get appointments in the new process and who cannot.
The application is now the only way for migrants to request exemptions to Title 42, a policy that blocks asylum seekers and other undocumented migrants from coming onto U.S. soil and instructs border officials to expel those who do so without permission, skipping the generally legally-required screening to see if they qualify for protection.
The exemptions are supposed to be for particularly vulnerable migrants, such as those who have immediate medical or safety concerns while waiting in Mexico. Asylum seekers have to attest that they meet at least one vulnerability category when they submit their applications, but they do not know until they get to CBP at the port of entry whether they will be accepted.
No more appointments
On the first day that migrants could request appointments in the CBP One app, Tijuana’s Office of Migrant Services set up a wifi zone outside of the municipal building with officials ready to help migrants submit their information to Customs and Border Protection.
A small number of migrants found the support tent, and officials walked them through the process. Officials even took their height and weight measurements to be as accurate as possible.
By mid-afternoon, the officials had managed to finish the process for three families, a total of nine people, according to Enrique Lucero, the head of the office.
But the appointments quickly filled.
A 22-year-old woman who had fled the Mexican state of Michoacán started the process with city officials that morning, but by the time they had gotten the application to accept photos for her and all of her three children, there were no more appointments, she said.
Over a week later, she still hadn’t been able to book one. She said that in the shelter where she’s staying, the app moves very slowly, likely a result of poor internet quality.
When it launched the app as a way for migrants to request entry, CBP said that it would offer two weeks of appointments at a time. That means that every morning at 6 a.m., one more day of appointments opens up.
There are 200 appointments per day at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, according to CBP. The agency declined to say how many were available borderwide.
Further complicating matters, as appointments on the app filled up, some migrants only saw available slots at far away ports of entry, according to Marcos Tamariz, deputy head of mission in Mexico for Doctors Without Borders. That meant that some of the Tijuana appointments were booked by migrants in Matamoros, a city on the eastern end of the border across from Brownsville, Texas.
Routes along the border from Matamoros to Tijuana are among the most dangerous in Mexico, he said, “so asking them to move from one place to another is not as easy as it seems.”
“There is lots of frustration behind this and not sufficient guidance or information that would allow people to make the best decision,” he said.
Inequity and internet
The use of the app, especially when coupled with the quick disappearance of appointments, has led to disparities.
People who have weak internet connections struggle to get the app to work. While the city of Tijuana reinforced the wifi network at a city-run shelter it opened up late last year to receive expelled Venezuelans, migrants in other shelters or on the street often have little access to reliable internet. Some don’t have cellphones.
The first appointments offered by the app were Thursday.
On that morning, the Union-Tribune observed mostly groups of Russians showing up for appointments as migrants arrived at El Chaparral plaza on the south side of the port of entry and walked up to the special entrance for CBP One processing.
Russian asylum seekers tend to have the financial resources to stay in hotels in Tijuana rather than shelters, meaning they have access to better internet.
As the Russians walked by, a man, his wife and four children who had recently fled Michoacán sat on the sidewalk. The man held two phones, trying to navigate the app. The first several pages were in English.
Once he managed to get past those, 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 input an email address. He waited for the confirmation email, but it never came. He tried again, still no email. It was not clear what the man needed to do differently.
That same day, at Templo Embajadores de Jesus migrant shelter, where well over 1,000 migrants are waiting to request asylum in the United States, only one of the people interviewed by the Union-Tribune had heard of the app — and only because she had been at the city building.
The shelter had had more immediate issues to deal with besides the app. The rains that flooded much of San Diego and Tijuana shortly after the app’s launch had destroyed the road leading up to the canyon shelter.
Those storms also created more difficult conditions for the migrants waiting inside. New arrivals to the Embajadores shelter sleep on mats on the floor until beds open up. They shared stories of the building flooding, soaking them and their bedding. Many had gotten sick as a result.
Since then, none of those interviewed by the Union-Tribune have succeeded in booking appointments. They try every morning at 6 a.m., but it is always full.
The app is even more complicated for those who don’t speak English or Spanish. Even though Haitians are one of the nationalities recently included in expulsions, 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 is opening yet another avenue for the exploitation of Haitian migrants who are left confused, frustrated and in limbo,” said Guerline Jozef, executive director of Haitian Bridge Alliance. “We are extremely disappointed that once again the system continues to fail Black migrants in search of protection.”
Erika Pinheiro, executive director of legal services nonprofit Al Otro Lado, said she was concerned about reports from migrants in Tijuana that those with darker skin, including both Black and Indigenous migrants, were having a particularly hard time getting the photo portion of the app to work.
Studies of facial recognition software have shown that the technology tends to have more errors when screening these demographic groups.
Expelled and waiting
Jesús, a Cuban man who asked not to be fully identified because of his ongoing vulnerable situation, is waiting anxiously for his CBP One appointment.
Jesús fled Cuba in December and was expelled from the United States in early January.
He left because of government surveillance and harassment and the effect that had on his business fixing washing machines, he said.
“I’ll summarize it 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 he crossed in 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 expelled to Tijuana.
“My world fell,” he said in Spanish. “I made so many sacrifices. To be returned is something really hard.”
He’s been staying at the shelter run by the city of Tijuana converted from a sports complex. He filled out the CBP One application on the first morning it was available, he said, and was able to get an appointment. His friend who tried later in the day was not.
Still, he’s fearful that CBP could reject him.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Andrea Castillo contributed to this report.