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An app launched to make seeking asylum simpler has left migrants even more precarious

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There seems to be an app for everything these days, even seeking asylum. The Biden administration launched the CBP One app in January when the government announced a new policy that requires migrants to book an asylum interview before they enter the United States. Apps can have glitches. CBP One has a lot, and in this case, of course, people's lives and security are at stake. Felicia Rangel-Samponaro is the director of the Sidewalk School, an organization that helps migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border with shelter, schooling and now tech support. She joins us from Reynosa, Mexico. Thanks so much for being with us.

FELICIA RANGEL-SAMPONARO: Oh, thank you for having me.

SIMON: What are some of the problems with the app that you experienced?

RANGEL-SAMPONARO: So when the app first launched, one of the main issues was people who have a dark skin tone - their pictures were not being accepted into the CBP One app. Also, it was separating families. You're also getting constant error messages, and that's for a variety of reasons, which I can tell you about. So you have seven encampments, three in Matamoros, four in Reynosa. People are living outside in makeshift tents in dirt and in trash with their entire family. So every day at 10 a.m. Central Time, you will see thousands of people at the same time on their phone trying to get an appointment with CBP One.

Wi-Fi in both cities are spotty at best. Thousands of people at the same time are standing on hills, bridges, the highest point they can get to, trying to catch a signal to get an appointment on CBP One. So all of these error messages that people are receiving - oftentimes we hear it's because too many people were on the app at the same time.

SIMON: So let me get this straight. The government says you've got to use this app and then the technology, the surroundings, the environment, the lack of Wi-Fi, the fact that you need a cell phone to begin with makes it...

RANGEL-SAMPONARO: Yes.

SIMON: ...Difficult, if not impossible, to use the app.

RANGEL-SAMPONARO: Right. The U.S. government will not provide internet service. And yes, some people do not have a phone. So then what you see when people go to these border towns and you see an entire family selling gum or candy, they're actually saving money to buy a phone. That's what they're doing.

SIMON: And of course, I mean, let's remind ourselves, the whole idea of offering asylum is so that people who are fleeing persecution will have an option to save their lives. And so now they also need a cell phone and Wi-Fi and plenty of time.

RANGEL-SAMPONARO: Yes, while you vie for the same thing with everyone surrounding you. There is a difference in how this works out for people. Black asylum seekers - they stay inside these encampments three to six months. And when this app first came out, no Black person was crossing. That was our main complaint.

If you are a brown skin tone, you're probably in Mexico for two or three months, which is still a long time to live inside of an encampment in a makeshift tent with your family in trash. And if you're a white asylum seeker, you're there for two weeks to one month because you probably have the resources to get a hotel room so you can stay with your phone all day constantly. So it's very different depending on your skin tone and the resources you have.

SIMON: I say this as a reporter with a little bit of experience reporting in this realm. It sounds like somebody has come up with the app so they can tell members of Congress, look what we're doing. And - except the app doesn't work to anybody's satisfaction, so - but that's not the point.

RANGEL-SAMPONARO: You have to keep in mind, before the app, they let third parties do this same process. Some of these third parties were charging between 1,000 to $7,000 for a free process. American lawyers, some foundations that I will not name - they were becoming millionaires out here in Matamoros and Reynosa off of these asylum seekers who are living in dirt with their babies. And I've heard this before meetings with the U.S. government. This was their solution to that problem.

SIMON: And what is life like there in Reynosa with so many people waiting for some kind of word?

SIMON: People are clearly suffering in Reynosa because there are four encampments and all the shelters stay full at all times, but people die. Last week we had two babies die and a little girl who had cancer died out there. Because on the app there isn't anything you can click that says like, I'm dying or my child is dying.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh,

RANGEL-SAMPONARO: Well, instead, we ask the parent to leave the baby and go up on a hill and try to catch the Wi-Fi and catch that appointment with everyone around you as your baby's back in your tent dying. This is not a rarity. This happens...

SIMON: Yeah.

RANGEL-SAMPONARO: ...Every week.

SIMON: Is the app getting any better?

RANGEL-SAMPONARO: The last update was March 6 for CBP One app, and that is when we really started seeing Black asylum seekers crossing, families crossing. So sure, it's getting better, but the bar was set so low. But we're still asking thousands of people to buy your own internet service, to buy your own expensive phone. We're asking people who are running for their lives to jump through hoops to get an appointment, go through all of these different things, and maybe you and your family will cross - maybe. We'll see.

SIMON: Felicia Rangel-Samponaro is director of the Sidewalk School in Reynosa, Mexico. Thank you so much for being with us.

RANGEL-SAMPONARO: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.