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CBP One Switched Off for Some Asylum Seekers in Northern Mexico After Reports of Migrant Extortion
Dive into the context and jumbled logics behind CBP's decision to end CBP One appointments at Laredo port of entry as part of my series on the growing intersection of migration and technology.
CBP One is a new smartphone app that asylum seekers must use to schedule appointments at ports of entry. It represents one of the most significant changes in the processing of asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border, and, for me, raises a variety of questions about the growing intersection of government technology, border control, and human migration.
Under the current era of asylum processing that started in January of this year, migrants must download CBP One to their smartphones and schedule an appointment at one of the designated ports of entry before being permitted to seek asylum in the United States.
A limited number of appointment slots were, until recently, released each day at the same time. Now migrants can enter their name into the CBP One appointment “pool” at any time in a 23-hour window each day and the CBP system will randomly select among the applicants for a limited number of slots that are scheduled out up to two weeks in advance. (If that sounds like a lottery system it’s because, well, it basically is.)
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) justifies this as a measure to increase efficiency at ports of entry and reduce the number of people seeking asylum by crossing unlawfully into the United States. Attorneys, advocates, and reporters, however, have observed that CBP One’s roll-out was accompanied by a plague of tech problems and design flaws that frustrated migrants whose lives seemed to now revolve around their smartphones.
I originally expressed concerns about DHS’s trend towards “big technology” solutions to immigration enforcement back in March 2022, and specifically the ways in which the digitization of border enforcement, and corresponding efforts at data collection and aggregation, could have dangerous emergent consequences.
The evolution of CBP One has born out these concerns. With CBP One, one major concern I have is that while the app may offer some (as yet unverified) efficiency benefits to the government, it could also accelerate the granularity and speed with which the government can modulate asylum access through software changes.
These concerns were partly confirmed this week when reports surfaced that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) ended access to CBP One appointments at the Laredo port of entry due to reports of extortion of migrants who were using CBP One.
CBP removed Laredo from its list of ports that accept CBP One appointment locations late last week sometime between 2:00 pm and 11:00 pm last Thursday according to the Internet Archive’s repositoryof the CBP One website. See the screenshots below.
Now, presumably, the termination of CBP One appointments in Laredo is meant to reduce the risk that migrants face trying to access asylum at that location. Indeed, Nuevo Laredo is (and has been) a dangerous place for some time—but the extortion of asylum seekers forced to wait in northern Mexico is not a new phenomenon and I can’t imagine that extortion and other violent crimes are exclusive to Laredo (though please enlightenment if you have some additional perspectives).
Waiting in northern Mexico is similar to (though not identical to) the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which was also known as “Remain in Mexico.” MPP put asylum seekers at risk of what Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) described as “physical violence, sexual violence, kidnapping, theft, extortion, threats” (emphasis added). In fact, PHR found that 25 percent of people they interviewed for their study in 2020 were targeted specifically for theft or extortion.
But just this week, the Associated Press reported that Mexican officials are involved in the extortion of migrants with CBP One appointments specifically, raising new questions for me about whether migrants’ use of CBP One is a form of protection or a risk factor.
In one case reported by the AP, Mexican authorities took the travel documents of Raphael, a man in his 20s who was fleeing Venezuela, including a printout of CBP One Raphael. The authorities demanded that Raphael pay them $57 to get the documents back. He did not pay. But a group of Russians who were present with Raphael paid a total of $290.
This appears to be a pattern in Laredo, specifically the airport. Although readers may have heard that migrants travel by foot, by car, or by train using The Beast (La Bestia), in fact, many migrants fly into the border region from elsewhere in Mexico. Flights from Mexico City to Nuevo Laredo are currently around $65. Bus trips for the same route appear to be about $85. Perhaps more important than the price, however, is the relative safety of flying rather than being on the road where migrants may be targeted by the cartels. Just last month, a busload of migrants was kidnapped and held for ransom at the price of $1,500 per person. Fortunately, most of the migrants were found alive, but others have not been so lucky.
As a result of all this, and, as I said above, presumably motivated by the targeting of asylum seekers, CBP will stop accepting new CBP One appointments in Laredo and reallocate the slots to other ports of entry along the border. I could not find any official announcements from CBP about this change or additional information about whether CBP would allow migrants to seek asylum directly at the port without a CBP One appointment.
But, as a way of closing, consider this.
First, the decision to (apparently) end access to asylum for migrants who were made vulnerable by CBP One itself out of a concern for migrant safety is a perplexing and internally contradictory move that lays bare the concerning nature of asylum access today. The policy in Laredo seems to be: “our policy for seeking asylum through CBP One has put you, migrants, at greater risk, and therefore to ensure your safety, we are terminating access to asylum altogether.” (This, by the way, is not new. A longstanding argument from the US government has been, “seeking asylum is, itself, dangerous; therefore we will discourage it.”)
Second, the whole incident illustrates, in a stark way, the relationship between US asylum processes and migrant precarity, specifically the ways in which US policies and practices (purportedly) intended to provide humanitarian protection can, in fact, have an opposite effect: they can actually exacerbate the risk that migrants face. (Imagine with me, if you will, an asylum claim based partly on the fact that the applicant’s eligibility for asylum comes from the fact that they used CBP One. Legally speculative, perhaps, but not factually implausible.)
Third, and central to the question of technology, forcing asylum seekers to go through CBP One also means that the tap, so to speak, can be turned up or down, on or off, simply as a bureaucratic touch-point in a piece of software rather than as a matter of agency policy. We are seeing the modulation play out in real-time, shifting artificially-limited “appointment slots” from one port to another. (How many clicks does it take to do this on a computer, I wonder?)
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In case some of my dear readers are not aware, the non-profit Internet Archive maintains an historical archive of the web available through the Way Back Machine. It is, in my view, one of the most important organizations in existence today, particularly for researchers but also for anyone who wants to recapture online information lost to website updates.