US asylum app CBP One: Technology for whose benefit?

A guest post by Betsabé Vásquez Martínez, current student in our 2022-23 MPP cohort


The CBP One app was launched in 2020 as a portal that provides migrants with a variety of US Customs and Border Protection services. With the introduction of Title 42 (a legal clause invoked by the Trump administration to allegedly stop the spread of COVID-19 across borders), the app became the only pathway to schedule asylum application appointments. This policy allowed the United States to turn away asylum seekers and forced them to stay in Mexico until they had made an appointment through the application, based on public health grounds. Title 42 expired on 11th May this year, but the CBP One app remains the primary way to access asylum.  For this reason, it is still valid to analyse its drawbacks and costs. 

An app to claim asylum? 

Using a smartphone application to start the asylum process is simply not practical for a vulnerable population on the move. Even though many asylum seekers do have access to smartphones, some may have obstacles to getting one. For instance, this is a problem for many gender-based violence survivors, who grabbed only their essential belongings and fled violence or who left their phones because it was a way in which their abusers could track them. Likewise, a service provider for migrants working in Tijuana commented on this situation, as some women who have suffered gender-based violence are in maximum-security shelters that do not allow phones, and therefore, they have an obstacle to accessing an asylum process.   

Some migrants have lost their belongings on the dangerous road to the US, so they do not have access to a telephone and therefore to a fair process to request asylum. Some migrants believe that by having more phones or a better phone, they will have a better chance of making an appointment through the application. Although this is not proven, it is also what is heard among migrants in shelters, as some people believe that by having another operating system, they will succeed in getting an appointment. This puts additional financial pressure on asylum seekers and can penalise the most vulnerable. 

Effects on mental health of asylum seekers 

Migrants have reported many errors in the app and the limited number of appointment slots continues to leave many asylum seekers waiting for months.  Some academics have studied how the uncertainty and length of an asylum process affect mental health and it has been found that these two factors are associated with anxiety and depression among migrants and that these effects can be long-lasting.  

Indeed, the lives of people in migrant shelters in Tijuana seem to be totally focused on getting an asylum appointment. While visiting Tijuana to collect data for my thesis, one of the artworks that I saw in a migrant shelter highlighted this situation, with the words: “Everything that surrounds me and my emotions revolves around the application”. 

In addition, some families are considering separating to buy time and give opportunities to their children, as it is hard to get an appointment for the whole asylum-seeker family and they believe unaccompanied minors have a better chance of being processed faster.  However, separation from family has proven detrimental effects on mental health. Likewise, the process of proving the need for protection for unaccompanied minors puts a burden on them, which can result in worse mental health outcomes for these children and adolescents.  Therefore, we cannot consider that a policy benefits migrants if they feel forced to choose family separation because they do not get a response in their asylum-seeking procedure. 

Data and privacy issues 

Firstly, it is important to point out that asylum seekers waiting for an appointment can be in a vulnerable situation, which makes them accept the conditions of this process without having full knowledge of the use of their data. This occurred repeatedly in refugee camps, where people received sparse and inconsistent information about the scope and purpose of the use of their biometric data gathered by service providers. Likewise, the case of Haitian people seeking asylum in the US stands out, since the application form was not adapted to their language until recently and therefore it is not clear if they truly consented to this process. 

Secondly, there is no clarity on how this information can be used for surveillance and discrimination, especially because of the facial recognition and GPS technologies associated with the application. This has also happened before in other migration contexts when these tools have been used to perpetuate discrimination against certain groups and to increase their chances of being spotted and deported. For instance, users of the CBP One App have reported that there is a facial recognition bias, as it fails to register dark skin tones. 

Does this comply with international law? 

There are many concerns about human rights regarding the mandatory use of the CBP One app, as this approach generates barriers to seeking international protection, a right that every human being is entitled to. This policy drastically restricts the possibility of requesting asylum and sustains an ongoing humanitarian crisis on the Mexican side of the border, while this country cannot guarantee the safety of its citizens or migrants. Estimations show that this policy has human costs, with 9,800 kidnappings and violent attacks against migrants blocked or expelled to Mexico since the start of the Biden administration. 

All the drawbacks of this asylum application method make it clear that the process is not designed to benefit migrants. Rather, this policy creates a new barrier that asylum seekers must overcome – a technological wall – which prevents them from reaching the safe place they aspire to live in and to which they have the right to reach.