In early January, Miguel, a migrant from Guerrero, a southwestern state in Mexico, struggled for over a month to get an app to work. He fixated on it because it was what he and his family — and many others like them — needed to enter the United States, Miguel told Rest of World. This essential app was CBP One, developed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It’s the platform through which migrants and asylum seekers applying for humanitarian exemption must request appointments with border agents before entering the country.
Miguel, who is being identified by a pseudonym for his and his family’s safety, told Rest of World he began using the app as a digital novice, but quickly became an expert in hard resets, mobile connectivity options, and other tricks — all in an attempt to grab one of the scarce appointment slots released daily on CBP One. But, no matter what he did, he always got the same result: errors, glitches, and a screen that displayed no more available slots.
Previously, asylum seekers and migrants in search of a humanitarian exception only needed to go to any one of the official ports of entry, and turn themselves in to Border Protection agents. Since early January, in an effort to curb the growing number of asylum seekers, the CBP One app has been a new requirement demanded of thousands of migrants seeking to enter the U.S. legally.
According to U.S. authorities, CBP One is meant to help speed up the process of being authorized to enter the country.
Rest of World spoke to migrants, shelter managers, immigration lawyers, and Mexican government officials, and found that the app has made an already grueling journey even more of an ordeal. Migrants spend their scarce time and money optimizing their phones, changing their usual migration routes, and avoiding new forms of digital extortion that have emerged due to criminals exploiting CBP One’s glitches — all to satisfy a requirement they previously didn’t need to worry about.
Appointment slots with border officials, who might authorize or deny a migrant’s entry to the U.S., are limited: Every day at 6 a.m. Pacific time, fewer than a thousand slots open up. They are usually gone within minutes. This, according to five migrants interviewed by Rest of World, has meant sleepless nights or very early mornings for those waiting to log in and race to input the required information, photos, and other documentation. If the app glitches or they are too slow, they are unable to secure a slot and must wait another day. The app is currently rated 2.5 stars on the Google Play store.
For CBP One to work, migrants also need to be in central and northern Mexico. The app checks a user’s location and blocks attempts to make appointments outside of authorized regions. This meant that Miguel, the migrant from Guerrero, was forced to travel about 2,000 kilometers from his home in southern Mexico to Tijuana on the U.S. border, at great personal expense. He had had to pay for travel and lodging for himself and four members of his family, he told Rest of World, “because the app forces you to be close to the border or in Mexico City.”
Once in an authorized area, migrants must still contend with CBP One’s constant glitches — some told Rest of World the app often shuts down unexpectedly, fails to upload documents, and requires seemingly constant updates. “Whenever they fix one glitch, they seem to create another one,” posted one member of a WhatsApp group of over 300 migrants, after the latest version of the app was announced on March 6. From March 8, CBP One will release new daily appointment slots at a later time — 11 a.m. — and list available slots up to 13 days in advance.
One particularly upsetting glitch, according to a discussion on the WhatsApp group, ends up separating large families, since it’s more difficult to find available slots for everyone. Andrew Bahena, coordinator of the International Programs Department at the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), confirmed to Rest of World that he had “heard many horrifying reports of families being separated as CBP refused to accept the entire family if they were not registered in the app.”
Migrants have found that the better the phone and the stronger its signal, the greater their chances of navigating CBP One’s glitches. “It’s an issue of inequality because not all migrants have a phone or the resources to get to one or upgrade the one they have,” Miriam Quiñonez, a migration lawyer and consultant, told Rest of World. “There should be support to all applicants so they all get a chance at successfully using CBP One.”
But a better phone doesn’t guarantee a smooth passage through CBP One’s many issues. Rogelio, a migrant from Haiti, who asked to speak under a pseudonym for fear his immigration process would be affected, told Rest of World he had been waking up at three in the morning to try to get the app’s identity scanner to work. “I would spend up to an hour trying to scan my face,” he said. According to migrants on the 300-member WhatsApp group, the app’s newest versions have substituted the scanner for a selfie, but uploading the image is still an issue.
The methods migrants use to get around these hurdles range from easy fixes to very technical, and often expensive, feats. Rogelio realized that because so many applicants were on the public Wi-Fi network at the same time, trying to secure appointment slots, it’d be quicker to spend extra money on data. With a faster internet connection, he managed to book an appointment in a couple of weeks.
There are also indications that some migrants are using VPNs — virtual private networks that allow users to disguise their location on the internet — to secure appointments. “We have not independently confirmed the cases but assume they are happening either because of glitchy geofencing technology or potentially the use of VPNs,” said Bahena. Members of the WhatsApp group have referred to downloading and successfully using a “fake GPS app” to book an appointment from Chiapas and Michoacán, both Mexican states outside of CBP One’s required locations.
Migrants also claim that criminals are exploiting the app’s flaws to scam desperate users. A family of 10 from Honduras alleged in an interview with a local reporter that they were charged $500 each by a lawyer in Piedras Negras, a border city in northeastern Mexico, who promised to secure appointments for all of them. They never heard back from her after they paid her. At least 10 others claimed to have had the same experience.
“Some folks don’t have the digital skills, and criminal characters will quickly hijack the process,” said Bahena.
Users’ frustration over being unable to navigate the app can also turn into more desperate measures. Despite moving to Tijuana and trying all the tricks he learned along the way — changing phones, using different data plans, resetting his phone — to no avail, Miguel and his family gave up on CBP One and ended up crossing the border without the necessary documentation.