By: Rachel Sheridan, Senior Litigation Counsel at the Tahirih Justice Center
Imagine a woman whose only chance at survival is to flee an abuser and seek safety in the United States. Her window of opportunity to escape may be short. Most likely she grabs only what she thinks is necessary for her journey.
If she has a mobile phone, she might not be able to grab it, or she may intentionally leave it behind so her abuser can’t track her down. She may end up buying a disposable cellphone for essential communication. After many days of trekking through multiple countries, she finally requests asylum at a U.S. port of entry, only to be turned away by CBP officers and advised to download an app to schedule an appointment.
For months people seeking asylum at our borders have been struggling to secure appointments with CBP officers through the CBP One app, under a new Biden administration policy. The app is designed to “streamline lawful entry,” but it is a poorly designed, inadequate solution to restoring fair asylum in the United States.
Aside from basic technical challenges such as frequent crashing, unexplained errors, and limited appointments —triggering headaches and anxiety for many—the implementation of this tool is inequitable and poses significant barriers to access for survivors fleeing violence and persecution.
Applicants must have expensive smartphones, some technical knowledge, and reliable internet access—major hurdles for some who fled violence with just the clothes on their backs. The app was initially only available in English and Spanish, despite high numbers of Haitians, indigenous Latin Americans, and speakers of other languages desperate to seek asylum.
Other issues bedevil CBP One. The app poses safety concerns, requiring significant amounts of personally identifying information, including photographs and family details. The facial recognition software fails to discern the features of many Black and brown migrants, sending some to find construction lights for sufficiently bright illumination to register for an appointment. Location tracking triggers fears, particularly for those migrants fleeing violent domestic partners or gangs. Geofencing (limiting access to the app to phones in close proximity to the border) prohibits family and friends from supporting asylum-seeking migrants from a distance.
There are only a small number of appointment available through the app, which makes it a new form of metering, a practice that limits the number of people who can present themselves for asylum that has been previously deemed unlawful. In addition, survivors of violence are forced to wait, with unstable housing and in unsafe circumstances, uncertain when they will be able to access an appointment.
Mere weeks after its launch, the flawed tool is another symbol of this administration’s failure to deliver on its promises to treat asylum seekers with compassion and humanity. Yet the administration is already planning to expand its use—without committing to fixing its many shortcomings.
President Biden has had plenty of time to repair our broken immigration system—a promise he made on his campaign trail. But his efforts have fallen short. Direct engagement with immigrant survivors and the organizations that serve them would prevent many of these shortcomings and bring both efficiency and dignity to the asylum process.