When the U.S. government rolled out the CBP One app in January, it was touted as a way to stem the flow of migrants at the country’s southern border while still giving them the opportunity to make refugee claims.
Instead of showing up at a border crossing – or crossing illegally and waiting to be arrested – asylum seekers file their information through the app and receive an appointment with Customs and Border Protection.
But Haitian migrants at the border and their advocates are reporting a host of problems with the app. Many say it is full of glitches and frequently crashes, denying them the ability to submit their information. Others say it has tried to split up families, offering appointments to cross the border to parents but not their children or vice-versa.
It also frequently rejects the photographs it requires asylum seekers to submit: CBP One appears to have particular trouble recognizing Black skin tones, they say, making it harder for Haitians to use.
“It’s a long wait to get an appointment, and that’s if you’re lucky,” said Ricot Picot, 42, as he stood in the courtyard of a migrant shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, watching his seven-year-old daughter and one-year-old son play nearby.
Mr. Picot said he was assigned a time slot last month to make his claim. When he got to the appointment, he learned that only he would be allowed across, while his wife and children would have to wait. So he turned back, opting to wait until all four of them could get an appointment together.
Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, who runs the Sidewalk School, a group that provides classes for migrant children waiting at the Mexican border, recounted many similar situations. In some cases, children and their parents had opted to take the separate appointments, she said. Once in the U.S., it could be a lengthy process for parents to find their children in the system and reunite with them.
She said it was common for CBP One to fail to recognize photos of Black asylum seekers, meaning many could not even complete the application. In addition, the app was originally available only in English and Spanish before a recent update translated it into Haitian Creole.
“If you’re a Black asylum seeker, CBP One was not meant for you. There are constantly errors,” said Ms. Rangel-Samponaro. “If you’re Haitian, you’ve probably been out here since October. If you’re Latino, you’ve been here since December. If you’re white, you’ve been waiting two weeks.”
A lack of reliable internet and low-quality phones in the encampments where many migrants live are also problems. Some U.S. lawyers, meanwhile, are trying to charge up to US$7,000 for help using the app, she said. It has all meant that asylum seekers with more resources have a leg up in filing claims.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not reply to The Globe and Mail’s questions about the problems with its app.
“You have to choose whether to eat today or spend the day doing the application,” said Alexis Wilson, 38, laying out the stark calculus facing migrants relying on pay-as-you-go data plans to access CBP One. He was standing amid several dozen tents pitched on a concrete pad at the edge of the city centre.
Marileidi Bazil, 16, said her family was turned back by U.S. border guards on the bridge from Reynosa to Hidalgo, Tex. Born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents, her family went first to Brazil when she was 11 before leaving there last year after work opportunities dried up.
“I’ll just keep trying with that stupid app. It’s worse every time I use it,” Ms. Bazil said as she sat in 34-degree sunshine, the Weeknd’s Blinding Lights playing on her phone. “But I’ll be patient.”
David Xavier, 53, has the added problem of suffering from cataracts. All of his possessions were stolen in Colombia and he’s had run-ins with organized crime in Mexico. “The app doesn’t work. I can’t upload photos and I have problems writing because of my eyesight,” he said. “I just want to get out of here.”
Pastor Hector Silva, who runs two migrant shelters, said that when the app started in January, it took about three weeks for migrants to get appointments. Now, waiting times are stretching to three months. The app also assigns appointments at any border crossing, so some migrants who file in Reynosa are told to travel 2,400 kilometres to Tijuana to make their claim.
“They want everyone registered on CBP One, but it’s been very hard for people. It’s not letting them in,” he said.
For Mr. Picot, there isn’t much choice but to keep pressing forward.
By the time he left Haiti, he said, it was impossible to go downtown in Port-au-Prince without risking getting robbed or shot. Children couldn’t attend school. Kidnappings for ransom were becoming so pervasive that parishioners were getting snatched out of church pews during Sunday services.
Mr. Picot, a teacher by profession, initially tried to settle in Brazil, where he took a job in a slaughterhouse. His income wasn’t steady enough to support his family, so they left last September.
The hardest part of the journey came while trying to ford a raging river in the Darien jungle between Columbia and Panama, he recounted. The water was so swift that other migrants were swept to their deaths. First, Mr. Picot swam across alone to gauge the difficulty. Then he came back and, one by one, guided across his wife and two children.
Wherever they go from here, he insists, no one is getting left behind.
“I follow the rules,” he said. “I pray for the chance that I can cross and bring my family.”