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Border & Immigration

Mobile app for asylum seekers has improved, but inequities remain

Lisette Moreno took the long way to Tijuana.

She and her 12-year-old son flew from Cuba to Nicaragua last summer. Then they took a series of buses to Mexico City, where they waited nearly four months to secure an appointment to enter the United States through the CBP One mobile app.

On Friday, they, along with 400 other migrants, crossed into the U.S. to officially seek asylum. It was a dream come true for a mother and son trying to escape political persecution.


“I want my son to grow up in a free country,” she said in Spanish.

And because Moreno used the app, she didn't have to pay a smuggler to sneak them across the border. She'll also have the opportunity to get a legal work permit in the U.S. while their asylum claim is reviewed by an immigration court.

In short, Moreno and her son are among the lucky ones in the post-pandemic asylum process.

“What the Biden administration has done, in rescinding Title 42 last spring, was create a two-tiered system,” said Dara Lind of the American Immigration Council.

Title 42 was the pandemic-era public health order that authorized Border Patrol agents to turn back asylum seekers without due process. It essentially shut down the asylum system to hundreds of thousands of migrants for several years.


'Ticketmaster of asylum'

The first group of migrants crossed the San Diego-Tijuana border with a CBP One appointment in January 2023. Since then, more than 100,000 have followed.

The mobile app has become the federal government’s preferred method for claiming asylum, Lind said.

“In general, what we think of as the standard process for asylum where you come into the U.S. and you are allowed to pursue a court case if you can demonstrate a credible fear of persecution in your home country, they only way to do that right now — the only way to guarantee it — is to use this CBP One app,” she said.

The app was controversial from the start. Immigrant advocates said it exacerbated existing inequalities in the asylum system.

Many called it the "Ticketmaster of asylum." That’s because asylum seekers had to log in at the same time to secure a very limited number of appointments. That meant people with the best internet connections, and not necessarily the most vulnerable, secured most of the appointments.

In the first few months of 2023, nearly half of CBP One appointments in Tijuana went to Russian migrants. But much larger migrant groups like Haitians and Mexicans received fewer than 20% of the appointments, according to data from the Mexican government.

Another major problem was CBP One's photo feature. Migrants have to submit a picture of themselves to secure appointments. But the app failed to capture images of migrants with dark skin tones.

Some of those equity issues have been addressed. It is no longer first come first serve. Now people sign up for a lottery throughout the day. And the app gives some priority to users who have waited the longest. The photo bug has also been fixed.

Data reflects the impact of those changes. In 2023, Mexican nationals secured the most CBP One appointments in Tijuana, followed by Haitians and then Russians.

Long wait times

Even though the app has improved, migrants are still forced to wait months to secure appointments.

“The underlying concerns about supporting yourself for an indefinite amount of time in Mexico remain,” Lind said. “And that’s going to fall harder on people who have less money.”

Officials in Tijuana said the app brought order to the asylum process. Before CBP One, thousands of migrants slept outside the border crossing waiting for a chance to cross.

“CBP One creates a virtual line, without it you’d have a physical line by the border,” said Enrique Lucero, head of Tijuana’s Migrant Services Department. “We’d have people sleeping there for days, weeks and months.”

It takes an average of four to five months for migrants in Tijuana to secure appointments, Lucero said. “That long wait makes migrants desperate and contributes to illegal migration,” he added.

Migrants who don’t have the money to live in Mexico indefinitely while waiting for an appointment, often choose to without authorization and end up in Border Patrol custody.

“CBP One creates a virtual line, without it you’d have a physical line by the border. We’d have people sleeping there for days, weeks and months.”
Enrique Lucero, head of Tijuana’s Migrant Services Department.

This group of migrants end up in what advocates like Lind refer to as the second tier of the current asylum system. They cross the border in rural parts of the county, sometimes paying smugglers tens of thousands of dollars for safe passage and wait in the open-air camps.

Once they enter the country, migrants in this tier are subject to detention and don't have access to a work permit until at least six months after filing an asylum application.

Asylum seekers from Mexico are the most desperate, Lucero said. That’s because they don’t feel safe in Tijuana — they won’t feel safe until they leave the country.

That’s certainly the case for Ricardo Martinez, an asylum seeker from the Mexican state of Michoacan.

That state is currently under a Level 4, “Do Not Travel,” advisory from the U.S. Department of State. Just last month, 11 villagers were gunned down by a local gang for not paying extortion fees.

Martinez left behind his home, several plots of land and his own business. He was a car mechanic and owned a garage.

“They started asking for protection money,” Martinez said of gangs back home. “Threatened to kill me and my entire family if I didn’t pay.”

It took Martinez six months to get a CBP One appointment, but he said it was worth the wait.

Having an appointment means he is much more likely to stay with relatives in Southern California instead of a detention center or a migrant shelter.

Martinez said he’s relieved to finally be entering the United States. But his mind is still in Michoacan.

“It’s very hard to leave everything behind,” he said.