Tens of thousands of migrants currently waiting to lawfully cross the U.S.-Mexico border are trapped behind a digital border wall erected by the Biden Administration’s expansion of CBP One, a mobile application. While many migrants wait for months to cross, families are forced to endure deplorable conditions just yards away from the United States. The Biden administration’s shameful attempt at a “fair, orderly and humane” immigration system has only worsened these conditions.
While waiting at the physical border, migrants are facing an impenetrable digital border. In January, the government rolled out use of CBP One, making it the only way migrants can secure an appointment to lawfully present at a U.S. Port of Entry. Biden’s proposed immigration rule, which is taking effect on Thursday, expands and formalizes CBP One as a requirement for entry, making it nearly impossible for migrants, many of whom are asylum seekers fleeing persecution, to present at the border lawfully. While in theory, the app aims to create “orderly pathways” into the United States, in reality, the app only further marginalizes already-vulnerable migrants.
In March, we witnessed how the shortcomings of CBP One exacerbate extensive human suffering. From our observations, it is abundantly clear that the app turns the legal right to asylum into a lottery—one you can only play if you have the right amount of money, speak the right language, or have the right skin tone. Even for those who have the opportunity to play, the odds are not in their favor. Across the entire Southwest border, at any given point in time, there are an estimated 100,000 people attempting to register for the approximately 700-800 slots available each day.
In Matamoros, Mexico, we spoke with hundreds of migrants crowded outside of a shelter, with unstable access to Wi-Fi, attempting to secure an appointment through CBP One. CBP One requires a smartphone, internet access, and the ability to read English, Spanish, or Haitian Creole. Many migrants do not have the money to purchase a functioning smartphone to access the mobile-only app. For those that do, internet access is extremely limited and largely cartel-controlled; cellular data is cost prohibitive and service is unreliable. An increasing number of migrants speak languages beyond those available in the app, including the Mayan languages and Russian, or are illiterate. The app also requires a live photo security check, which does not consistently recognize the facial features of darker-skinned people.
For families, getting appointments is even more difficult. CBP One assigns each family member, as opposed to each family unit, their own appointment slot. If there are only four slots available, a family of five would not get any appointments. This process has made it effectively impossible for families to present at CBP, forcing some families to separate from their young children to increase their chances of obtaining appointments.
As a result of the deficiencies in the app, migrants are stuck in limbo in inhumane conditions. In Camp Río in Reynosa, Mexico, more than 700 Black Haitian migrants live in makeshift tents. Access to food and potable water in the camp is scarce. With no functioning sanitation, migrants are forced to defecate in the field directly adjacent to the camp. The runoff from the field contaminates the nearby river water with feces, which migrants and local communities then use for bathing, washing clothes, and preparing food. As a result, according to medical professionals familiar with Camp Río, migrants are contracting communicable gastrointestinal and skin diseases, including fatal infections like cholera.
In addition to immense physical hardship, many of the migrants we met along the border reported severe psychological distress resulting from the uncertainty of their ability to secure an appointment through CBP One. Ms. R, an asylum-seeker fleeing her homicidal abuser, reported daily stress-induced migraines, debilitating anxiety, and lack of appetite from constantly trying to obtain an appointment. Ms. R has been forced to wait so long that her abuser has identified her location and, since, sent her death threats.
In the eyes of many of the CBP Officers with whom we met, the app is a success: it has allowed them to effectively streamline intake at the Southwest border. But bureaucratic efficiency is coming at the cost of human lives.
Biden’s current immigration system is not fair, orderly, or humane. There are things that can be done to improve this untenable situation. First, the U.S. government must provide financial support for the life-saving work of the organizations sheltering migrants waiting to lawfully present to CBP. In addition, the Biden administration must address the app’s inequities: the government must translate the app into more languages, ensure migrants with all skin tones can access the security check features, schedule appointments based on family units rather than individual members, provide internet along the Southwest border to ensure equitable access to the app, and expand the number of slots available each day to ensure migrants are not left in peril for months on end. Lastly, there must be alternative ways migrants can seek entry into the United States outside of CBP One.
Without these changes, CBP One will be yet another way of harming migrants and building walls to keep them out.
This is a project of Yale Law School’s Immigrant Justice Project, which organizes law students in support of immigrant communities in the New Haven area and around the country. Additional IJP members and contributors to this piece include Megan Handau, Audrey Huynh, María Mendoza, and Neha Srinivasan. For our additional commentary, as well as our legal analysis, on the Biden administration’s proposed rule, please see the Yale Law School’s Immigrant Justice Project’s comment submitted in response.