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Border & Immigration

An already glitchy app could worsen migrant plight under Biden's new asylum actions

President Joe Biden’s new executive actions direct asylum seekers toward existing legal pathways. However, KPBS border reporter Gustavo Solis says those pathways aren’t working for the most vulnerable migrants.

Earlier this month, when President Joe Biden announced new executive actions that effectively blocked all new asylum seekers at the border, he said asylum is still possible in the U.S. All you have to do is make an appointment through the Customs and Border Protection’s CBP One app.

Just download the app on your smartphone, fill out the application and schedule an appointment. It’s easy … in theory. But not so much in practice.

“The app is famously glitchy,” said Jeremy Jong, an attorney for the immigrant advocacy group Al Otro Lado. “I tried to use the app. I downloaded the app and tried to make an appointment and it glitched out.”


The app, which for the vast majority of migrants is the only way to legally access the asylum system, has had its technical issues since it debuted over a year ago. Yet, the problems go deeper than a glitchy app.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) only allows 1,450 appointments to be made each day. But there are tens of thousands of desperate migrants throughout Mexico trying to secure one. The result is a virtual lottery that leaves some of the most vulnerable migrants in the world stranded in dangerous Mexican border towns.

Stuck in a dangerous limbo

In Tijuana, the average wait time to secure a CBP One appointment is seven months, according to local officials. The conditions are harsh and the stress intense.

“There is a lot of anxiety and depression in these shelters,” said Jasmine, an asylum seeker from Mexico who has spent six months waiting for an appointment. "Mothers are losing their hair.”


Jasmine asked KPBS not to use her last name out of fear that the same cartel that forced her to flee her home in Michoacan will follow her and her two daughters to Tijuana.

Tijuana officials and migrant advocates worry that this already bad situation is about to get much worse in the aftermath of the new executive actions Biden issued on June 4. They increase the legal standard migrants have to pass in order to pursue an asylum claim and also fast-track deportations.

But they do not increase the limited number of CBP One appointments, nor do they fix the app’s other problems. Immigrant advocates told KPBS that this is a recipe for disaster.

“What you’re doing is you’re funneling everyone into one line and that line is already longer than any line you’ve seen in your life,” said Jeremy Jong, a staff attorney with Al Otro Lado.

Biden’s executive actions came after an increase in encounters along the southern border. Facing pressure from Republicans in an election year, Biden said they were necessary to get the border under control.

Biden has also blamed congressional Republicans for the current situation, saying it could have been avoided if they hadn’t killed a bi-partisan immigration bill earlier this year.

In addition to the long wait times, Jong said there are more inherent problems with the phone app. “Not everybody has a smartphone,” he said.

People without smartphones or access to the internet cannot use the app. Another limitation is that it’s only available in three languages — English, Spanish and Haitian Creole.

Data from CBP show an increasing number of migrants from countries in the Middle East and Asia are trying to use the app. Latin American migrants from indigenous communities who do not speak Spanish are also unable to navigate language barriers, Jong said.

In May, Al Otro Lado sued CBP over potential discrimination of migrants with disabilities who cannot use the phone app.

The lawsuit references a migrant with facial paralysis who was unable to create an application and a man who suffers from hand tremors that prevented him from using the app.

“What the app does effectively is it precludes these people from the asylum process,” Jong said.

More than 591,000 people had successfully used the app to schedule an appointment from January 2023, when the app was first introduced, to the end of April 2024, according to a statement from CBP.

Contributing to illegal crossings

Eight months and two weeks. That is how long Maria and her two teenage sons have waited for a CBP One appointment.

The family fled their home in the Mexican state of Michoacan after a local cartel burned their business to the ground and tried to recruit the two brothers. Maria asked KPBS not to publish her last name.

“We’ve been waiting for such a long time,” Maria said in Spanish while holding back tears.

The U.S. Department of State currently has a “do not travel” advisory to Michoacan because of widespread crime and kidnapping.

Maria has tried to request asylum in person, without an appointment at the legal border crossing. But Customs and Border Protection officers have turned her away and told her to use the app.

“They say we have to cross legally, but what do we do if there are no legal options available,” she said.

In a statement, a CBP spokesperson told KPBS that, “a percentage of daily available appointments are allocated to the earliest registered CBP One profiles.” This is meant to ensure people waiting the longest are prioritized.

Another consequence of the long wait times is an increase in illegal crossings, according to Tijuana officials.

Roughly one-third of people who cross the border illegally are asylum seekers who tried to schedule CBP One appointments, waited months, and lost hope, according to Enrique Lucero, director of Tijuana’s Migrant Affairs Department.

“They come in with a lot of post-traumatic stress,” he said. “They want to cross as quickly as possible because they believe that whatever they’re fleeing from will follow them to Tijuana.”

Lucero believes forcing more migrants to use the app without increasing the number of appointments could intensify the same crisis Biden said he’s trying to solve.

“If you’re going to impose these new rules, then you should increase the number of CBP One appointments,” he said.

But Lucero is not holding his breath and told KPBS Tijuana plans to open several emergency shelters in the event that the new actions leave more people stuck there. Officials want to avoid large encampments like the ones the city saw during the pandemic.

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.