The online system for applying for asylum in the United States is quickly overwhelmed

TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) – Hours before sunrise, migrants at one of Mexico’s largest shelters wake up and go online, hoping to secure an appointment to try to seek asylum in the United States. The daily ritual resembles a race for concert tickets when online sales begin for a major act, as around 100 people slide their thumbs across phone screens.

New deals are available every day at 6 a.m., but migrants find themselves stymied by error messages from the US government’s CBPOne mobile app, which has been overloaded since the Biden administration introduced it January 12.

Many cannot log in; others may enter their information and select a date, only to have the screen freeze at the final confirmation. Some get a message that they must be near a US crossing, despite being in Mexico’s largest border city.

At Embajadores de Jesus in Tijuana, only two out of more than 1,000 migrants got appointments in the first two weeks, says director Gustavo Banda.

“We will continue to try, but it’s a failure for us,” said Erlin Rodriguez of Honduras after another fruitless run at an appointment for him, his wife and their two children on a pre-dawn Sunday. “There is no hope.”

Mareni Montiel from Mexico was excited to pick a date and time for her two children – then she didn’t get a confirmation code. “Now I’m back to zero,” said Montiel, 32, who has been waiting for four months at the shelter, where the sound of taps fills the crisp morning air at the end of a rough, dirt road.

CBPOne replaced one opaque patchwork of exceptions to a public health order known as Title 42, under which the US government has denied migrants the right to seek asylum since March 2020. People who have come from other countries are in Mexico waiting for an exemption or a policy change – unless they try to cross into the United States illegally

If successful, CBPOs could be used by asylum seekers even as Title 42 is repealed as a safe, orderly alternative to illegal entry, which reached the highest level ever recorded in the United States In December. It could also discourage large camps on Mexico’s side of the border, where migrants cling to unrealistic hopes.

But a number of complaints have surfaced:

— Applications are only available in English and Spanish, languages ​​many of the migrants do not speak. Guerline Jozef, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, said authorities failed to take “the most basic fact into account: Haiti’s national language is Haitian Creole.” US Customs and Border Protection says it plans a Creole version in February; it has not announced other languages.

— Some migrants, especially those with darker skin, say the app rejects necessary images, blocks or delays applications. CBP says it is aware of some technical issues, especially when new agreements are made available, but that users’ phones can also contribute. It says a live image is required for each login as a security measure.

The problem has hit Haitians the hardest, said Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, director of The Sidewalk School, which helps migrants in Reynosa and Matamoros, across Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. In the past, about 80% of the migrants admitted to seek asylum in the area were Haitians, Rangel-Samponaro said. On Friday, she counted 10 blacks among 270 hospitalized in Matamoros.

“We brought construction lights pointed at your face,” she said. “Those pictures still weren’t able to go through. … They can’t get past the picture part.”

— A requirement that migrants apply in northern and central Mexico does not always work. CBP notes that the app will not function properly if the location feature is turned off. It also tries to determine if the signals are bouncing off US phone towers.

But not only is the app unable to recognize that some people are at the border, applicants from outside the region have been able to bypass the location requirement by using virtual private networks. The agency said it has found a solution to it and is updating the system.

— Some advocates are disappointed that there is no explicit special consideration for LGBTQ applicants. Migrants are asked if they have a physical or mental illness, disability, pregnancy, lack of housing, face a threat of harm or are under 21 or over 70.

Yet LGBTQ migrants are not disqualified. At Casa de Luz, a shelter in Tijuana for about 50 LGBTQ migrants, four quickly got an appointment. A transgender woman from El Salvador said she had not ticked any boxes when asked about specific vulnerabilities.

The US began blocking asylum seekers under President Donald Trump on the grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19, although Title 42 is not applied uniformly and many who are considered vulnerable are exempt.

Starting in President Joe Biden’s first year in office until last week, CBP arranged waivers through attorneys, churches, advocates and immigration shelters, without publicly identifying them or saying how many slots were available. The event led to accusations of favoritism and corruption. In December, CBP cut ties with a group targeting Russians.

For CBPOs to work, enough people have to get deals to refrain from crossing the border illegally, said Leon Fresco, an immigration attorney and former aide to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat.

“If these deals start to drag on for two or three or four months, it’s going to be a lot harder to keep it going,” he said. “If people don’t come through, they won’t use the program.”

CBP, which schedules appointments up to two weeks out, declines to say how many people are coming in. But Enrique Lucero, director of migrant affairs for the city of Tijuana, said US authorities are accepting 200 daily at San Diego, the largest border crossing. That’s about the same as the previous system, but well below the number of Ukrainians processed after Russia’s invasion last year.

Josue Miranda, 30, has lived at Embajadores de Jesus for five months and prefers the old system of working through advocacy groups. The shelter created an internal waiting list that moved slowly but allowed him to know where he stood. Banda, the shelter director, said 100 were selected each week.

Miranda packed his bags for him, his wife and their three children and thought his trip was imminent until the new online portal was introduced. Now the Salvadoran migrant has no idea when or if his chance will come. Still, he plans to keep trying through CBPOne.

“The problem is that the system is saturated and it’s chaos,” he said after another morning of failed attempts.

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