NOGALES, México — Lidia is frowning at the smartphone screen. The face staring back at her, a blonde-haired woman wearing a Carhartt beanie and heavy mascara around her large blue eyes, is modeling how asylum-seekers should position their faces on the federal government’s CBP One mobile app.

“Captura de Rostro,” the message above the blonde woman’s face reads. “Face Capture,” followed by “Touch anywhere to continue.” 

Lidia is an Indigenous Mam woman from Oaxaca. Mam are a Mayan people who speak the Mam language primarily in Guatemala and in the states of southern México. She touches the screen of her phone, where the blonde-woman’s face is, and tries to take a selfie. 

“Error,” the screen responds.

“I don’t look like her,” Lidia says, repositioning herself to try to catch more light from the window. “Maybe that’s the problem.”

Lidia is short, hardly 5-feet tall, has round cheeks, dark brown hair. She helps her little girl climb into the chair next to her.

Lidia is one of more than two dozen asylum-seekers who, on a recent Friday in early February, are attending a troubleshooting workshop in Nogales, Sonora. Migrant-rights volunteers have been hosting the crash courses around a long card table in a large room with a whiteboard.

Currently, the app is the only way for asylum-seekers outside the United States to gain an exemption and make an appointment at a port of entry to levy an asylum claim. Nogales is the only port in Arizona where asylum-seekers can make an appointment, which concentrates asylum-seekers in a city where they have few resources or people to depend on.

Gia Del Pino leads a class training people migrating for safety at the Kino Border Initiative to use the CBP One app in Nogales, Sonora on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. Credit: Michael McKisson

In the closed-in patio visible through a wall of windows, volunteers are finishing cleaning up and eating a late breakfast. In the classroom, other volunteers are helping people navigate their legal and human rights via a flawed Custom and Border Protection app. 

For years, the number of people coming to the United States to seek asylum has been rising.

In March of 2020, the Trump administration invoked an antiquated public health code, known as Title 42, to automatically expel anyone crossing the U.S. border without authorization. Since then, the overwhelming majority of people coming to or crossing the U.S.-México border to seek humanitarian protection have been blocked or pushed back.

The move was the culmination of years of efforts to limit asylum, turning various sites in northern México into de facto refugee camps. 

To mitigate the crisis, the Kino Border Initiative, or KBI, which has been assisting migrants in northern Sonora for decades, offering a safe space, beds, food, medical assistance, as well as some legal and social services, expanded its role and capacity. Now volunteers also assist the new population of people blocked from seeking safety, dealing with the precarity of northern México, and unable to return to their home states or countries.

KBI holds twice-weekly workshops, basically asylum-seeker Geek Squad sessions, says Gia Del Pino, the organization’s director of communications.

Kino Border Initiative communications director, Gia Del Pino, listens as people migrating explain the challenges of using the US Customs and Border Protection’s CPB One app during a training session in Nogales, Sonora on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. Credit: Michael McKisson

CBP One, purported to help streamline access to claiming asylum, uses facial recognition software to compare the faces of people seeking asylum with their other identity documents. It also runs their faces through a terrorist and national security database.

The problem? The technology seems unable to recognize many faces, especially when people have darker skin tones or Indigenous features — when they don’t look like the blonde model on the screen’s background. 

Advocates are finding that Black asylum-seekers, from Haiti and African countries, or elsewhere, face greater bias using the app, as the algorithm doesn’t recognize their skin tone.

Lidia and all other asylum-seekers in this article — all of whom fear persecution in their home countries and insecurity and danger in northern México — are only identified by their first names.

Critics argue that long-standing legal complications, discrimination and other hurdles to gaining asylum have now been compounded by the Biden administration’s new app mandate.

Faltering facial recognition technology is only one of a host of complaints asylum-seekers and advocates have enumerated about the app. It also needs a strong signal or Wi-Fi to work and requires two-factor authentication. That’s a problem for less wealthy or less tech-literate people without emails. And it is only available in three languages — English, Spanish, and, as of recently and after criticism from Haitian migrants, Haitian Creole. 

Rafael, right, and his son Marcelo attempt to schedule a meeting time with representatives from the US Customs and Border Protection agency through their CBP One app during a training session hosted by the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Sonora on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. They are fleeing political unrest in Peru. Credit: Michael McKisson

All of that puts what was once a straightforward, though harrowing and legally difficult, act for asylum-seekers behind a technological wall. Human-rights advocates argue that the process of fleeing to the border and asking for asylum protection is now derailed by an app that’s endangering lives as people worry at their phones and languish in northern México.

The app has been around for years, but was recently updated as part of a series of new initiatives by the Biden administration. 

Ports of entry were closed to asylum-seekers because of the Title 42 public health order. After multiple lawsuits and missed expiration dates, the measure could end in May, as the federal government reviews public comments on new asylum regulations and moves to terminate the COVID-19 national and public health order. 

The app, according to a Jan. 12 Department of Homelands Security announcement, was meant to “reduce wait times and help ensure safe, orderly, and streamlined processing.” 

But as Lidia and many others testify, the app is having the opposite effect: one more tool used by the U.S. government to deny asylum and push impoverished and endangered migrants away from U.S. territory.

Eleanor Acer, Director, Refugee Protection, Human Rights First, said in a recent press call that the Biden administration is effectively “advancing the Trump administration’s agenda.”

“Neither U.S. or international law requires access to technology in order to be able to exercise your human rights to seek asylum,” Acer said. “There’s no question that the CBP One app should not be, legally, morally, or otherwise, the only way in which people can access asylum in the United States.”

A March 13 letter from 35 members of Congress, including Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., addressed to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas cites their offices having “received numerous reports of unusability, inaccessibility, and inequity that have already resulted in grave harm to asylum-seekers” because of reliance on the CBP One app.

In the KBI workshop in Sonora, less than a mile from the U.S. border, Lidia repositions herself, tries to find better light from the window, and again faces the blonde model.

Lidia explains that she doesn’t know how to read very much, having only attended one year of school. She is struggling to figure out not just how to take and upload her photo, but how to complete all the other portions of the app that would allow her to present at the U.S.-México border.

People seeking asylum are required to use the newly launched CPB One app to take their photo as one step in the process. Photo taken at the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Sonora on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. Credit: Michael McKisson

“I have to figure it out,” she says, looking at her kids. “More than anything it’s for them.” 

Her two children, 6 and 4, are playing in chairs next to her. Lidia explains that violence in her small community in Chiapas has forced teachers to abandon the local school. Shootouts became common, and she was scared not only that she’d be unable to give her kids an education, but that she’d be unable to keep them alive.

After a weeks-long bus journey to the U.S.-México border, the biggest obstacle she now faces is a phone app.

Blocking Asylum 

Since the passage of the Refugee Act in 1980, which brought U.S. law into line with protocols first established in the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, anybody who is inside the United States, no matter how they arrived, or who shows up at the U.S. border, was given a chance to apply for asylum.

While there have long been exceptions to who may be granted asylum, and in practice the policy discriminated against certain nationalities, the principle of offering protection to those who needed it was unquestioned. That began to markedly change during the Trump administration when White House and the Department of Homeland Security officials made concerted efforts to restrict both asylum and refugee procedures.

In the two months since the Biden administration announced its overhaul of the system for seeking asylum, which is pending possible changes that would not go into effect until May, policymakers and national and international lawyers have been talking with people on the ground.

They’re trying to assess how the rollout of CBP One for asylum-seekers is already causing turmoil. They hear stories from people like the volunteer Geek Squad at KBI in Nogales trying to help migrants like Lidia and her children secure their safety, rights and navigate a technological nightmare.

The CBP One App is part of a multipronged strategy the Biden administration is implementing in attempts to reduce the numbers of migrants, mostly asylum-seekers, arriving at the U.S. southern border. 

Other efforts include a policy that permits as many as 30,000 people from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua to be paroled into the U.S. every month, at the same time that 30,000 from each country can be immediately expelled into México. The program has expanded from last fall when it initially applied only to Venezuelans, and which was, in turn, modeled on a similar program for Ukrainians. Parole is only temporary, not a pathway to citizenship, and does not let those who qualify to bring family members over as well.

On Feb. 21, the Biden administration announced its most restrictive measures, which would deny asylum to people who passed through another country without seeking protection there first and penalize them if they cross the border without authorization. The penalization directly contravenes existing U.S. law, which states that any migrant “who is physically present in the United States,” regardless of status or where they are, may apply for asylum. 

In the text of the proposed new regulation, which is up for public comment and is scheduled to go into effect in May, the CBP One app is described as “an innovative mechanism for noncitizens to schedule a time to arrive at ports of entry.”

People may provide feedback on the proposed regulation through March 27

The new rule would expand the use of the app, as most asylum-seekers outside of the United States would need to use the app to request protection. 

“Use of this app protects migrants from having to wait in long lines of unknown duration at the ports of entry, and enables the ports of entry to manage the flows in a safe and efficient manner,” according to the text of the new rule.

While the rule claims that the app is “creating efficiencies” in asylum processing, the administration also acknowledges that they are “aware of concerns regarding the accessibility” of the app.

They also note that there may be exceptions to the requirement to use the app, as long as the asylum-seeker “demonstrates by a preponderance of the evidence that it was not possible to access or use the CBP One app due to language barrier, illiteracy, significant technical failure, or other ongoing and serious obstacle.”

CBP officials did not respond to detailed questions about the inaccessibility of the app.

The proposed asylum regulations are “a death sentence for the poor, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, African, and other communities who don’t have the luxury of buying a direct ticket to the United States,” said Bilal Askaryar, interim campaign manager of the #WelcomeWithDignity campaign.

Social worker Yemilka Hernandez helps a person migrating navigate the CPB One app during a training session hosted by the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Sonora on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. Credit: Michael McKisson

‘What do I do?’

The facial-recognition software that Lidia and others are contending with is only a small part of the problem with CBP One. “The app is very glitchy,” says Gia, the KBI spokesperson.

Erika Pinheiro, the executive director of Al Otro Lado, a migrant rights organization based in Tijuana, echoed Gia’s sentiment: “You have to go through multiple screens and it just keeps on crashing.”

At the KBI workshop, one man, José, from the state of Guerrero, holds out his phone to explain that his Google Chrome operating system kept wanting to fill in the boxes itself, but when he gave it permission to do so, it wouldn’t, and when he denied it permission, it just asked again.

“What do I do?” José asks his neighbor, Rafael, an asylum-seeker from Peru. Rafael shows him his own phone, which was displaying the message: “The code sent is invalid.”

Another man, his voice pitched with desperation, says. “I don’t even have an email.”

Gia is standing at the head of the series of tables around which two dozen men and women, along with a few children, are thumb-stumbling on their phones.

“Is anybody else trying to figure out how to get an email?” she asks.

Six hands go up.

“Does anybody else have problems simply putting in their email”? 

Eight hands.

“Anybody have trouble understanding what the app is asking you?” 

Five hands.

“Anyone struggling to take a photo?” 

Nine hands.

“The application no está bien hecha,” Gia says. It’s not well-built.

She suggests trying to close it and restart, but admits that doing so will require you to fill out everything again. With the patience and equanimity of a schoolteacher, after further general announcements and answers, Gia begins a series of circles around the tables, leaning over shoulders, swiping across screens, and trying to answer and troubleshoot specific issues.

A person migrating attempts to take a photo of her son using the CPB One app during a training session hosted by the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Sonora on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. People migrating for safety have struggled to use the app because of various bugs and frequent crashing. Credit: Michael McKisson

‘Virtual border walls’

“There’s things that we anticipated that are even worse than what we thought, especially the racially-disparate access,” said Erika, from Al Otro Lado.

Asylum-seekers from Haiti face particular difficulties. When the app was first expanded in January to be used by asylum-seekers, it didn’t have an option for Haitian Creole speakers. As of March 16, the app’s Haitian Creole website is a nearly illegible word jumble. It’s not the only instance of CBP websites not being accessible to Haitians. 

Laura Wagner, the Haitian Creole Team Lead at Respond Crisis Translation, said that some of CBP’s websites are clearly just using Google translation services.

“Haitian migrants are faced not only with glitchy web platforms that don’t work well, display error messages in English, and often fail to recognize people with darker skin,” Wagner said, “but also with poorly-translated Kreyòl — when those websites or platforms are translated at all.”

Jean Jeef Nelson, a case manager for Haitian Bridge Alliance, explained that even when the Haitian Creole translations do work on the app, they only do so for the first steps of trying to book an appointment. Then the app switches back to English or Spanish. All of the error messages, he noted, are in English.

“We have folks who are illiterate who were compelled to pay as much as $500 dollars for help filling out the app,” Nelson said, describing the situation with Haitian asylum-seekers in Tijuana.

Jake Wiener, an attorney at Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, a DC-based organization that focuses on privacy and freedom of expression, worries that “an app that functions poorly can deter people from applying for asylum or spread mistrust of programs that are designed to protect and benefit asylum-seekers.” 

When CBP pushes migrants to use an app like CBP One, they are asking migrants to trust them to handle their data safely and use it responsibly. 

Jake worries about the new technology “creating virtual border walls.” 

“Any tech should be used to solve real problems and improve access to services,” Jake added, “not to expand surveillance and discourage migrants.”

Reliance on new technology can be frustrating for anyone. When it’s a matter of life or death, the frustration takes on a new dimension.

“It can also be traumatizing to have your family’s safety come down to luck with an app,” said Chelsea Sachau, managing attorney of the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project’s Border Action Team.

“Many of the people we serve have told us they feel powerless to protect their kids and families when they aren’t able to get an appointment despite trying every morning.”

Kino Border Initiative staff member Gia Del Pino helps people navigate the CPB One app during a training session hosted by the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Sonora on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. People migrating for safety have struggled to use the app because of various bugs and frequent crashing. Credit: Michael McKisson

Dangers for asylum-seekers in México

The problems asylum-seekers are facing with the app are more than just technical. The app’s failures have repercussions beyond the frustration familiar to anyone who deals with modern technology. 

Asylum-seekers are, by definition, fleeing for their lives. And while many of them may have left the most pressing dangers far behind them — in South America, the Caribbean, or elsewhere — northern México has repeatedly proven itself to be dangerous, even deadly, for migrants. 

Over the past years, as successive U.S. administrations have sought to block asylum-seekers from accessing U.S. territory, various organizations have extensively documented a host of abuses against migrants, including intimidation, extortion, kidnapping, rape, enslavement, and murder. 

Omar, 22, has been struggling with the CBP One app for a month. He is terrified of what may become of him.

Originally from El Salvador, Omar was forced to flee after a gang in his hometown gave him an ultimatum: either join their ranks, or, they said to him, “we’ll deal with you.” 

He knew what dealing with him meant: almost certain death. So he and his family collected all the money they could, about $700 dollars, and he headed north.

Soon after crossing the border from Guatemala into México, he says he was kidnapped by armed men in police uniforms. He suspects they were not actual police officers, but isn’t sure. After three days of threats, and watching a fellow migrant beaten to the precipice of death, he escaped.

His travails in México were not over.

As he continued north by bus, he was robbed by police, who forced him to pay a bribe to continue traveling. And once he arrived in Nogales, a group of young men, recognizing that he wasn’t a local, told him he’d have to start paying a fee to live in Nogales.

A few days after first trying to schedule his appointment on the app and find safety across the border, with no luck, his cellphone broke. That meant he was out of the game for nearly two weeks as he struggled to raise the money to buy a new phone. He eventually got a Samsung Galaxy S10e, which cost him more than $300. 

After staying for a bit more than a week at the KBI shelter, Omar was now sharing a small apartment, and had even landed a job. But after more than a month of struggling with the app, he still hasn’t found an appointment.

Omar says that he’s dealing with discrimination in Nogales. He’s paid less at the laundromat than his coworkers who are Mexican, and he’s scared to ask for more. With hundreds of publicized cases of asylum-seekers being extorted, kidnapped, or murdered, he’s trying as much as possible to maintain a low profile.

“I’m scared something will happen to me here. I wasn’t going to stay in El Salvador to die, and I don’t want to stay here and die either,” Omar says.

People migrating for safety use scraps of papers to write down important pieces of information when filling out the required information in the CPB One app during a training session hosted by the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Sonora on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. Credit: Michael McKisson

‘I want to cry’

“The stress is killing us,” says Rafael, another asylum seeker from Peru. He continues fussing at his phone, showing screen-grabs of error messages. He holds the phone up and a CBP seal, ringed by a blue line continuously circling.

“No carga, no carga, no carga, no carga, no carga,” Rafael says, complaining about the app not loading. 

“It’s like they’re making fun of us,” he says. And then adds, “I want to cry.”

A man next to Rafael has a torn off bit of a candy box with his email and password scratched onto it. He’s quiet and patiently waiting for help.

Another man was standing against a wall for at least twenty minutes, staring at the blonde woman’s face and trying to break through the facial recognition: “No me sale,” he says. It’s not coming out.

Omar says, “I remember when Biden, before he became president, said he’d help migrants, but he’s doing the opposite.”

“Just give us a chance,” he says, getting choked up behind his mask. “We’re not coming because we want to, but we have to, it’s our destiny. We’re not trying to do anything bad, we just want to live.” 

He pulls his cap down low, trying to hide his tears. That’s the constant predicament asylum-seekers in northern México deal with: hide or blend in so as not to become targets of crime at the same time they need to make their faces visible to a CBP algorithm that, in many cases, refuses to recognize them.

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John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...