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Border officials allow asylum-seekers to request U.S. entry through mobile app

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Washington — U.S. border officials on Thursday began allowing some asylum-seekers to use a free mobile application to request an opportunity to be processed at an official port of entry. It is part of a strategy the Biden administration hopes will dissuade migrants from entering the U.S. illegally.

Eligible migrants in Mexico who use the app will be granted an appointment with U.S. Customs and Border Protection at a port of entry, where officials will determine whether they should be allowed into the country under humanitarian exemptions to a pandemic-era rule known as Title 42 that has limited asylum claims.

The expansion of the mobile app, called CBP One, was first previewed by President Biden last week, when he unveiled a new border strategy that paired increased expulsions for those who cross the southern border illegally, with expanded opportunities for migrants with U.S.-based sponsors to enter the country legally.

migrants asylum U.S.-Mexico border
Immigrants wait overnight next to the U.S.-Mexico border fence to seek asylum in the U.S. on Jan. 7, 2023, as viewed from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.  Getty Images

The port of entry appointment process is separate from another Biden administration program that will allow up to 30,000 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans to fly into the U.S. each month if American citizens, or other individuals in the U.S. with legal status, agree to sponsor them.

Migrants in central or northern Mexico who hope to be processed at a port of entry will need to prove they have a vulnerability identified by the government to merit an exemption to Title 42, which allows U.S. border officials to quickly expel migrants on public health grounds, without allowing them to request asylum.

The vulnerabilities DHS will consider include a physical or mental illness, a disability, pregnancy and the lack of safe housing or shelter in Mexico, according to guidelines in the app. Migrants under the age of 21 or over the age of 70, and those who have been victimized in Mexico, will also be considered for the process.

In a statement Thursday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called the port of entry program "an innovative solution."

"When Title 42 eventually lifts, this new feature will join one of the many tools and processes this Administration is providing for individuals to seek protection in a safe, orderly, and humane manner and to strengthen the security of our borders," Mayorkas said.

In addition to attesting to their vulnerability, the CBP One app will require migrants to submit biographical information about themselves and their families, as well as a photo of their face. They will then be given an appointment up to 14 days in advance to show up at one of eight ports of entry in Arizona, California or Texas.

Those selected for an appointment will not be guaranteed entry into the U.S., DHS officials said, noting CBP officers have broad discretion to grant or deny migrants permission to enter the country during inspections at a port of entry.

The application process will be free, and questions on the CBP One app are available in English and Spanish. The process will also mean that migrants seeking a humanitarian exemption to Title 42 will no longer need a referral from non-governmental organizations, which have been sending lists of vulnerable migrants to the U.S. government over the past few months.

Under that program, the Biden administration had been processing thousands of asylum-seekers at port of entry each month. In November, the last month with available data, officials at ports of entry processed 20,696 migrants under humanitarian exemptions to Title 42, government statistics filed in federal court show.

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents check the passports of Ukrainian refugees looking to cross into the U.S. at the San Ysidro Port of Entry border crossing bridge in Tijuana, Mexico, on Sunday, March 20, 2022. Bloomberg

While crossing into the U.S. between ports of entry is illegal, U.S. asylum law allows migrants on American soil to request asylum, regardless of how they entered the country. But the government has used Title 42 to partially suspend asylum law, expelling hundreds of thousands of migrants without a court hearing or an interview. Migrants have also been generally blocked from seeking asylum at ports of entry under Title 42.

After defending it as a key public health measure for over a year, the Biden administration tried to end Title 42 in the spring of 2022, but Republican-led states convinced a judge to block the termination. 

Then, in November, another federal judge declared Title 42 unlawful. His order, however, was suspended by the Supreme Court, which kept Title 42 in place at the request of the group of Republican-controlled states that have argued the policy's end will fuel an even greater increase in border arrivals.

While the Biden administration's recently announced strategy includes an expansion of Title 42 to expel migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti who were previously not subject to the policy, the expansion of the CBP One app could open the U.S. asylum system to significant numbers of migrants stranded in Mexico.

Andrea Flores, a former National Security Council official who worked on border issues during the first year of the Biden administration, called the new port of entry process "long overdue," saying it "advances President Biden's original promise to reopen access to the asylum system."

"Allowing migrants to register for an exemption to Title 42 is a more humane alternative than leaving them vulnerable to misinformation from smugglers," Flores told CBS News. "This type of innovation in border processing is the future of orderly migration at the southern border."

Still, some advocates for asylum-seekers expressed concern about the new process, saying it will exclude destitute migrants who don't have access to Wi-Fi or phones, as well as those who don't speak English or Spanish, or who face imminent danger in Mexico and can't wait for an appointment.

"This will exclude the most vulnerable of migrants," said Erika Pinheiro, the executive director of Al Otro Lado, a California group that offers legal counsel to asylum-seekers in Mexico.

Priscilla Orta, an attorney based in south Texas who represents migrants for the group Project Corazon, criticized the vulnerability guidelines in the CBP One app, saying they don't explicitly consider LGBTQ migrants as vulnerable.

"The world knows that some of the most persecuted people on this planet are those who are members of the LGBTQ+ community," Orta said, saying some of her clients face victimization in Mexico because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

The ports of entry participating in the Title 42 exemption process are located in Nogales, Arizona; the Texas cities of Brownsville, Eagle Pass, Hidalgo, Laredo and El Paso; and the California cities of Calexico and San Diego. The first appointments under the expanded process are set to occur on Jan. 18. DHS officials said they would make additional days available every morning.

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