People in Mexico hoping for U.S. asylum are now being asked to use a mobile app, but advocates remain concerned over how the data it collects will be used and the large number of migrants who may lack the technology to use it.
The app CBP One had already been in use by the administration for some purposes but was officially expanded to allow asylum-seekers to be pre-screened. Those who qualify are given appointments for a date and port of entry where they can enter the U.S. and begin their asylum request process.
The app also is being used for people from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela with sponsors in the U.S. to begin the process to get paroled into the country for two years.
Since its activation last week, the app has been in such demand that it is telling applicants it has run out of appointments, according to Mexican officials and a dozen migrants, some of whom shared phone screenshots with Reuters.
Many migrants have phones, but others arrive without them or have limited or no Wi-Fi access. Some lose phones or are robbed of them on their journeys.
“One of our main concerns about the app is how it will impact accessibility and one of the things we are concerned about is how complicated the app is to use for people who may not know they need a phone to access it, who may not have good Wi-Fi and those who may not understand the process of signing up, creating a password, getting two-step verification,” said Raul Pinto, senior staff attorney for the American Immigration Council.
Pinto said there is concern about how will people get access to request asylum at a port of entry if they do not have the ability to download the app from where they are.
The administration wants to move away from third parties assisting people in using the apps and have people apply directly. Pinto said international organizations had access to the app previously over their own phones and were able to help provide people needing Wi-Fi and internet access.
But he said there were reports of abuses; some nonprofit organizations refused to use the app and some third parties were charging money to help people use it.
“The efforts to make it more widely accessible are laudable and at the same time allowing for technology to make the process more expedient, I think that’s something that should be considered,” Pinto said. But he questioned whether the administration is making available all the information people need to use it and whether it's widely accessible.
Darryl Morin, president and CEO of Forward Latino advocacy group, said he tried the app and came away frustrated.
“I consider myself an educated man and still found it extremely complicated,” Morin told NBC News.
Groups have also raised concerns about how app users' personal information will be used and stored. Pinto said the app does not hold people’s information, but the information entered on CBP One passes through other government databases, some which can hold the information for years.
The app also has GPS tracking technology that has raised red flags, although the federal government has said it will not be used for surveillance. It can use facial recognition technology, a technology shown to have biases.
“I think it’s important that the app is not utilized as the sole method because we are anticipating that not everyone is going to be able to use it,” Pinto said. He said the government needs to continue to provide resources at ports of entry so they can still walk up and seek “protection that they so desperately need.”
On the border, Ruben Garcia, director of El Paso’s Annunciation House, which shelters migrants, said they are receiving 75 to 85 people a day who have been allowed to seek asylum to the U.S. under an exception to the pandemic law, Title 42, which allows few people to apply for asylum but contains some exceptions.
He said there are signs that number could increase to 100 to 150 and he thinks the app would make the process more organized.
“If I had my way, I’d have 300 to 400 people coming every day that way and wouldn’t have people having to cross the wall and other dangerous things,” he said.
Giovanny Castellanos, who is from Venezuela, had been waiting on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border for months to enter the U.S. He lined up Wednesday to enter Laredo, Texas, from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Reuters reported. He recommended migrants to avoid taking the risks to cross the border and use the app instead.
Another migrant from Venezuela, whom Reuters identified only by her first name, Alejandra, entered at El Paso, Texas from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
“I’m really excited, I can’t wait to see my family,” she said.
But the experience was a little different for Jose Huerta, a Venezuelan migrant in Ciudad Juarez. The app gave him an appointment to cross the border at Tijuana, Mexico, across the border from San Diego, California — about 746 miles west of Ciudad Juarez.
“I don’t have money, now I have to walk,” he told Reuters.
The U.S. has seen a crush of people trying to enter at the border city of El Paso from Ciudad Juarez. Shelters have been so full that people have been sleeping on the street in frigid temperatures. Others waited without proper cold-temperature clothing on the Mexico side for a chance to get in.
The city declared an emergency to be able to shift and receive funds to respond. Texas' governor sent in National Guard members and equipment and Department of Public Safety troopers erected razor wire on the border.