Desperate migrants seeking asylum face a new hurdle: technology

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People move through a migrant encampment in Matamoros, Mexico. (Sergio Flores/for The Washington Post)


MATAMOROS, Mexico — It was supposed to be his last day in Mexico. The 7-year-old Venezuelan boy beamed as he bid farewell to his teacher, Liliana Carlos, at a school for migrant children living in tents while waiting for their chance to enter the United States.

His family, finally, had obtained an appointment in February with U.S. Customs and Border Protection after weeks of trying to use a new app to secure a slot.

Now they hoped to be allowed to begin a new life in America. No more sleeping on the ground. No more threats of kidnapping. No more watching his mother cry.

But instead of the safety his family longed for inside the U.S., the boy returned to the Sidewalk School, inconsolable, his teacher recalled. CBP officials on the border bridge sent back about 50 families, including his. They’d all made appointments online as family units. But agents were now enforcing a rule requiring each child to register individually.

“We are never going to leave,” Carlos recounted the boy telling her as she ushered the wailing child into an alcove known as the “calm corner.”

The CBP One app is part of President Biden’s plan to provide more options for legal immigration. Advocates say the app has been plagued with glitches. (Video: Luis Velarde, Verónica Cárdenas/The Washington Post, Photo: Sergio Flores for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

As the Biden administration struggles to bring order to the border, some of the most vulnerable migrants are finding themselves stuck in squalid camps in Mexico. A significant number are seeking asylum in the United States and were expecting the sanctuary of the nation’s immigration law, which allows migrants fleeing persecution to request protection no matter how they reach the country. Advocates estimate close to 7,000 people were spread out in encampments in Matamoros and Reynosa in January.

All are trying to use a new CBP app that is supposed to make entering the country more efficient. Each day, migrants awake before sunrise to search for a WiFi signal and try to get one of the 700 to 800 appointments available at eight entry points. Advocates estimate there are more than 100,000 people seeking entry. The appointments fill up within five minutes.

Previously, attorneys could intervene to make a case for asylum seekers to get emergency admission into the U.S. Now those fleeing gang violence are fighting for appointments on their own, alongside those facing less dire conditions.

“We thought things were going to be different, but here we are fighting the same types of battles and begging to let in victims of torture,” said Jessica Riley, a staff attorney with nonprofit Lawyers for Good Government who works with asylum seekers.

The Department of Homeland Security says the app is designed to remove some of the perils from having long lines of migrants waiting in border cities such as Matamoros, where U.S. citizens were recently kidnapped from and where two were killed. Instead, many can now apply from their home country and show up the date of their obtained their appointment.

“This app cuts out the smugglers, decreasing migrant exploitation, and improving safety and security,” DHS spokesman Luis Miranda said in a statement.

More than 9,900 individuals have used the app to enter the country by getting an exemption from the Title 42 pandemic-era public health restriction since it went live in January, CBP data shows. Over 10,000 more have used to app to obtain humanitarian parole under a new program for those from Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba or Nicaragua — offering a lifeline for many who can avoid embarking on a treacherous journey.

Yet at migrant camps, shelters and safe houses along the U.S.-Mexico border, asylum seekers who arrived before the app was launched or faced such imminent danger that they could not wait to get an appointment struggle to get a WiFi signal. Families scramble to register all their relatives only to find out all of the day’s appointments have been taken. Desperation mounts as they look toward a country within eyeshot but perpetually out of reach.

Two weeks after being sent back to the Sidewalk School, Carlos said her once hopeful student still doesn’t have a new appointment. The child’s name is being withheld by The Washington Post out of concerns for his safety.

She tried to console him, she recalled, but he was despondent, telling her: “I want to die.”

Lourdes Gonzalez has been housing the most at-risk asylum seekers in the border state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, since 2018. Inside the protective walls of her shelter, migrants find a bed, a kitchen for communal cooking, medical supplies and some privacy. She tends to sexually assaulted children and bandages the wounds of violence victims.

“There are traumas here you cannot imagine,” she said.

On a recent afternoon, there were about a dozen families seeking refuge in the shelter. Among them were Yohana Cardona, her husband Gerardo Carías and their three children. The couple owned a bodega in Honduras and fled after being attacked by gang members upset they’d stopped paying extortion fees.

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The family arrived penniless at the border. They also didn’t have a smartphone, but quickly realized they wouldn’t get into the United States without one. So together they sold candy on the streets until they earned enough to buy a used phone at a pawnshop.

Now they struggle to buy data credits to utilize the internet. About 100 Mexican pesos or $6 can buy two weeks worth of access to the online world. But the family typically earns no more than 20 to 50 pesos a week — meaning they sometimes go days without being able to try their luck with the CBP One app.

“Do they know where we are?” Cardona said, bursting into sobs. “The most dangerous place on the continent. Kids can’t play outside because of gunshots. Taxi drivers help kidnap people. We had to sleep on the streets for days before finding a shelter.”

Her husband, Carías, added: “It’s stressful enough with what we had to do to get here. This [app] is one more obstacle. We feel powerless.”

WiFi service in northern Mexico is spotty at best and at worst, nonexistent. The signal may be strong enough to log on but the low bandwidth falters the deeper into the app one goes. Migrants say the signal drops completely when taking a photo or uploading information.

Those challenges are leading some to take new risks.

Twenty-year-old Oliver of Honduras is hoping to reunite with his mother across the U.S. border. But when he got to Reynosa, he was kidnapped. His mother paid several thousand dollars in ransom to the cartels to secure his release.

Then, searching for a WiFi signal to make an appointment, Oliver climbed onto the roof of a building in the predawn hours and ran into low-hanging power lines. Shocked by the electrical current, he fell and spent several hours unconscious on the ground, he recounted in an interview. Eventually someone found him and called for help. Oliver woke up in a hospital. He survived, but barely.

Oliver’s burns run across his neck and down his arms and back. He lays prone in bed at Gonzalez’s safe house for most of the day with a Red Cross blanket draped across the dark marks on his back. Volunteers help clean his wounds and try to keep the covers from sticking to his peeling skin. But they fear the young man could contract an infection without more advanced care.

“My life is in danger here,” Oliver said in a muffled voice as he strained to lift his chin from the pillow sustaining his head. “I need help. I just want to heal and be with my mother.”

These are the kinds of cases Gonzalez said she encounters every day.

“I understand the frustration of U.S. citizens and not letting everyone come in, but I also know these people really need it,” Gonzalez said. “The app is good, but it doesn’t give them a chance to tell their horror stories.”

Cartels and photo glitches

Nearby in Reynosa, a three-acre lot covered in human feces near a sandy river peninsula overrun by Mexican cartel members sits adjacent to a camp for migrants.

They sleep and eat 50 feet away from the open pit. Soiled toilet paper clings to cactus needles. A toxic plume of nostril-singeing smoke rises over the encampment from a trash heap at the river’s edge where plastic burns.

Nearby, a collection of tall glass candles bearing the image of La Santa Muerte, a grim-reaper like Mexican folk saint worshiped by narcos, have been placed in a circle drawn into the sand.

This is Camp Rio, where at least 1,000 Haitian asylum seekers are spending each day they can’t get an appointment.

Many Black migrants are pushed to the fringes of border cities to wait in subhuman conditions. They have more difficulty accessing shelters than those with lighter skin and often experience racism in Mexico.

With nowhere else to go, Haitian families lay out mattresses in abandoned gas stations and stretch old nylon political banners across pillars to engineer some privacy. Some of their tents are recycled from camps that arose during the Trump era, when 70,000 asylum seekers were sent back across the border as part of the “Remain in Mexico” program.

Haitians are frequently targeted by petty thieves and heavily armed drug dealers. Volunteer doctors with nonprofit Global Response Medicine have treated strange rashes, severe respiratory infections and at least one case of cholera at the border camp.

“The reason these camps exist is because they are waiting to legally cross,” said Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, founder of Sidewalk School, which has two locations. She is one of the few Black Americans serving migrants in the border region.

Advocates and families say the app has posed additional hurdles for Black migrants; initially, instructions were not available in Creole and migrants with darker skin said they had more difficulty with the facial-capture feature.

Biden administration officials reject claims the app’s functions don’t work as well for Black migrants, pointing to recent DHS data showing that 40 percent of applicants who used CBP One to secure their entry into the United States were Haitian.

Ricot Picot, 42, of Haiti, wrestled with the app’s photo feature for weeks before he obtained appointments for himself, his wife and two of his three children. He showed a reporter how the app’s camera struggled to recognize and capture his dark-skinned face. It was a miracle, he said, that it finally worked for him. But his youngest daughter, 7, still had not succeeded.

“You hold on because of your kids, but it’s your kids who suffer the most,” he said.

Picot received good news earlier this month when he reported for his appointment. The CBP officer at the Hidalgo International Bridge allowed them to cross, even though his youngest didn’t have an appointment. They are now safe in New England.

Kidnapped, beaten, and waiting

Within a northern Mexico safe house, a 30-something-year-old asylum seeker ran his fingers across the bumpy scar tissue that had healed unevenly around his wrists. The marks are remnants of the torture he endured two weeks earlier.

His voice quivered as he recalled black-clad kidnappers ambushing the house where he was living at 1 a.m. in late January. They bound his hands and feet with electric cables and threw him in the trunk of a vehicle.

For two days, he was repeatedly burned and beaten.

The Washington Post is withholding the man’s name and other identifying characteristics for safety reasons because he is still in Mexico. But the man showed a reporter the lacerations and described how men pistol-whipped and beat him. Dark circular scars mark the spots on his legs where his captors pressed lit cigarettes into his flesh.

“The app doesn’t feel fair,” said the man, who was denied an exemption to the Title 42 rule barring most migrants from entering and has failed to secure an appointment. “I need protection in the United States.”

Riley, the attorney, represents the man and another asylum seeker who also was attacked and is under threat from Mexican criminal organizations. Both are now in hiding. Riley said she made formal requests to CBP for her clients to be quickly exempted from Title 42 for their security. The requests were denied. Officials said to use the app.

Border officials say case-by-case determinations are still being made, but there are no options to check a box or otherwise indicate that one belongs to an especially vulnerable group when applying for an appointment through CBP One.

Marco Alcazar is a transgender woman but presenting as male for her safety while living in an open-air encampment atop a river levee. She is surrounded by compatriots who like her try to find ways to feel human: streaming Top 40 Latin hits through a speaker for dancing; offering haircuts for a nominal fee; or selling food.

But the vibrant scene belies the perils Alcazar faces. The transphobia and discrimination that propelled her flight from Venezuela are more virulent in Mexico, the second most dangerous place in the world to be transgender after Brazil.

She said she believes that in the United States, “I will be protected.”

‘We will lose everything’

At the Matamoros school, more teary-eyed children arrive each day. Fathers and mothers trying to register for immigration appointments are blocked by error messages, stymied by frozen screens or run out of time before all the day’s slots are taken.

When Charlene D’Cruz traveled to Matamoros on a February morning, word spread quickly that she was a lawyer. Within seconds, she and another advocate were surrounded by panicked mothers, dumbstruck fathers and wide-eyed children asking for advice.

“I’ve been here four months!”

“This system is horrible and forcing us to separate from our kids!”

“They leave us no way out!”

According to dozens of families interviewed, it is difficult to register and take photos of multiple people on the CBP One app within the small window in which appointments for the same day are available. Single adult registrants were getting dates. Families weren’t.

Miranda, the DHS spokesman, said the agency is “committed to family unity” and had always required that each family member secure an appointment, but that some officers made exemptions in the early days of the app’s rollout.

The crowd of people around the attorneys swelled. Parents with upcoming dates wondered what would happen if they sent their small children across the bridge alone as unaccompanied minors. D’Cruz begged them not to.

“If we don’t, we will lose everything we’ve worked for,” a woman from Nicaragua said, pressing her bewildered daughter against her leg.

Advocates counted between 40 and 50 children surrendered at the bridge alone days later.

Back at the Sidewalk School, the number of children enrolled has swelled. Carlos, the coordinator, said they went from teaching a handful of kids each day to more three dozen in recent weeks. She said that means more and more children, and their families, aren’t getting appointments.

The longer they despair in Mexico, parents say, the more they consider sending their children to the United States alone.

Valentina Sanchez, 24, of Venezuela, and her husband had appointments in February. Their 3-year-old son did not. He crossed and she stayed behind with the toddler.

“I worry for my son, because he asks me constantly, ‘Where’s papi?’” she said. “I tell him, ‘You see those lights on the other side? That’s where he is, waiting for us.’”

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