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An app is the latest tool, and barrier, for migrants at the southern U.S. border

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In January of this year, the Biden administration unveiled a new app specifically for asylum-seekers and other migrants without valid visas. CBP One is supposed to help alleviate the crisis at the southern border, but the app, which users say constantly glitches or produces error messages, is what often stands between migrants and their dream of finding safety in the U.S. NPR's Eyder Peralta has this report from Matamoros, Mexico.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Inaudible).

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Just off the banks of the Rio Grande, a huge migrant encampment has sprung up. It's dotted with makeshift tents. And at 9:45 every morning, anticipation builds.

(CROSSTALK)

PERALTA: One man announces that today is the day everyone gets an appointment on the CBP One app.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Of course, that's a dream because as the number of migrants seeking asylum at the U.S. southern border has skyrocketed, the U.S. has allowed fewer migrants into the country by putting up restrictions. The latest is this app.

ENDER PRIETO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "But something always goes wrong," says Ender Prieto. Sometimes it's a spinning wheel; others it's an error. Other times it rejects their pictures. But without the app, you can't get into the U.S. And the app is so particular the migrants now have superstitions.

PRIETO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: They put on the same clothes, the same hat. They take their picture in the same place because they believe the app verifies identity using a photo.

(CROSSTALK)

PERALTA: 9:58 - two minutes to go. They stare at their phones, and at 10, they click desperately.

JONAHY ISLAYA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Jonahy Islaya seems to have good luck.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

ISLAYA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "Take the picture fast." She does, but the app spits out an error. It's over for them. But across the camp, we hear commotion.

(CROSSTALK, CHEERING)

PERALTA: A Venezuelan family - Jason David, his wife and his two girls - secured a family appointment. It's been five years since they left Venezuela.

(CROSSTALK, LAUGHTER)

PERALTA: The whole camp surrounds them. They cry. They hug. They laugh.

JASON DAVID: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: They don't have family in the U.S., but they have dreams. He imagines safety, a chance to work, a chance for his girls to go to school.

(CROSSTALK, LAUGHTER)

PERALTA: Less than a decade ago, these migrant camps did not exist in Mexico. But as the asylum process in the U.S. got harder, many migrants were stranded. Tyler Mattiace of Human Rights Watch says this is part of a worldwide trend narrowing the rights of asylum-seekers.

TYLER MATTIACE: We see it in the U.K. We see it in Europe - this rejection of people's basic right to seek international protection.

PERALTA: The Biden administration says its policies and this app make the trip north safer. Migrants can now cross legally when they have an appointment. But Mattiace says it does just the opposite. The Venezuelans, the Cubans, the Haitians, the Nicaraguans amassing at the border don't have the luxury of deciding when they want to travel. They're fleeing, and the app...

MATTIACE: Forces them to wait in unsafe places and unsafe circumstances. And it violates international law.

PERALTA: The law, says Mattiace, gives asylum-seekers a basic right - to have their cases heard. This new app system makes decisions based on things that have nothing to do with their asylum cases. For the others in the camp, reality quickly sets in. Yule fled Venezuela, she says, because both her dad, a military officer, and her husband, physically abused her. I ask her if she had applied for an appointment.

YULE: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: No, she says. Her phone's screen is dead. Yule - we're only using her first name because she fears her dad could track her down - says she had actually gotten an appointment on that phone a few weeks earlier, but she was turned away at the border.

YULE: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Her son had chickenpox. The border agent said it was monkeypox. For months, she had carefully carried folders with documents ready to present her asylum case.

YULE: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "They don't let you talk," she says. Her mind wanders. In this camp, she hears gunfire. There's no running water, no toilets.

YULE: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "I have nothing to feed my children," she says. She doesn't have any money to buy a new phone. Sometimes she thinks about just jumping into the Rio Grande. Maybe they'll send her back home. Maybe, she thinks, the danger there is better than the uncertainty here.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, along the U.S.-Mexico border in Matamoros. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.