House Democrats demand improvements to CBP One app for asylum-seekers

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A group of House Democrats is pushing the Biden administration to make improvements to CBP One, the mobile app available to migrants through U.S. Customs and Border Protection [CBP] to secure appointments to legally enter the United States to claim asylum.

In a letter led by Democratic Reps. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), Jesús “Chuy” García (Ill.) and Joaquin Castro (Texas), the lawmakers listed a series of flaws in the app they say worsen conditions at the border.

“While CBP has implemented minor changes to address serious glitches within the app, there are still several critical issues that require immediate attention and resolution. As asylum seekers remain in danger, CBP must address these access issues to ensure safe and humane asylum processing and relief for those at risk,” they wrote.

In 2023, CBP One, an app originally launched in 2020, started taking asylum appointments, becoming a cornerstone of the Biden administration’s efforts to channel migrants through ports of entry.

Though the app had some initial success, it has since proven insufficient to process the number of migrants presenting at the border and has been criticized for lacking essential features to effectively process those who do use it.

“First and foremost, CBP’s decision to require asylum seekers to use the still-faulty CBP One app fundamentally undermines the accessibility of the asylum process. Because individuals seeking asylum at our southern border are required to pre-schedule an appointment through the app, the current process obstructs the right to seek asylum by forcing individuals to remain in Mexico while waiting for their asylum cases to be heard,” wrote the lawmakers.

The most-often heard complaint about the app — and the improvement request at the top of the Democrats’ list — is its language accessibility.

Other than English, the app is available in Spanish and Haitian Creole, but even in those two languages, the app’s translations can be lacking.

“Even for individuals who do speak one of the three main operating languages, the app can be difficult to understand. For example, accessing the Haitian Creole version of the app requires navigating initial questions in English or Spanish, and there are poor translations for critical and contextual words like ‘Customs.’ Moreover, the Spanish version of the app is not fully or accurately translated,” the Democrats wrote.

Beyond the Spanish and Creole translations, some resources are available in Portuguese and Russian, but speakers of other languages — for instance, African Francophones or speakers of Mayan dialects — have few accessibility options.

And many migrants face a different kind of language barrier: digital literacy.

Those who are unable to schedule appointments on the app and present at the U.S.-Mexico border nonetheless are subject to a “rebuttal presumption of asylum ineligibility,” meaning the federal government assumes anyone who did not use the administration’s pathways to entry is ineligible for asylum.

“The system’s reliance on exceptions, which appear neither meaningful nor accessible, arbitrarily excludes people from accessing the asylum system because of the language they speak or their limited technological literacy,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.

The presumption of ineligibility has had little success in discouraging migrants from entering the country without prior authorization, but it’s likely to negatively impact asylum applications when they are reviewed by immigration courts years later, regardless of individual applicants’ eligibility.

Structural flaws in the system, the Democrats wrote, are only working to benefit smugglers and criminals who prey on migrants in Mexico.

“The difficulties with CBP One increase the likelihood that migrants will rely on cartel-backed smugglers to enter the United States instead of applying through legal pathways. If these challenges continue, our country could see more tragedies like the June 2022 mass death incident in San Antonio, Texas, where 53 people died after being trapped in the back of a sweltering tractor-trailer,” they wrote.

And organized crime — including smugglers — is taking full advantage of the flaws in the system.

“There is also strong evidence that smugglers themselves have been actively spreading misinformation to capitalize on CBP One’s faulty implementation. Multiple organizations have reported that smugglers falsely claim that the app will soon be discontinued and suggest that crossing between ports of entry is quicker and more straightforward than waiting for an appointment,” according to the letter.

That’s put more pressure on nongovernmental organizations that operate at the border with scant resources to help migrants navigate the system, including the CBP One app, sometimes to the point of providing internet access and phones for migrants to schedule appointments.

In their letter, the lawmakers called on the Department of Homeland Security to implement seven steps to address the failings they listed by expanding transparency, increasing the number of appointment slots and removing the rebuttal presumption of asylum ineligibility policy.

“We believe these measures are essential to ensure that CBP One meets the balance between efficiency, access, and transparency while also addressing language access issues for asylum-seekers.”

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