Migrants waiting to cross the border say government’s app for asylum-seekers is a mess
Joseline Decaires Jiménez, a migrant from Venezuela, tears up as she sits on a bus headed from El Paso to a shelter in Denver — leaving her family behind in Mexico. Jiménez was separated from her husband and two daughters while trying to apply for asylum through the CBP One mobile app. (Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune)
EL PASO — After spending days in overcrowded shelters, Joseline Decaires Jiménez sat in a charter bus station Monday night, waiting for a bus to take her to Denver — even farther from her family, whom she had to leave behind because of a problem using a phone app.
She’d crossed the border legally but quickly reached the limit of nights she could stay in El Paso shelters. Her husband, Juan Angel Pabón Guerrero, and their two daughters would have to stay behind in Ciudad Juárez, where they live in a tent among at least 100 other migrants who have camped in front of a shuttered Mexican detention center that was damaged by a March fire that killed 40 migrants.
“It hurts to leave, knowing that my daughters are just across the wall and yet I can’t see them,” Jiménez said, wiping tears from her eyes. “I’m afraid I won’t see them again, I’m afraid someone may threaten to kill them.”
The family is among thousands of migrants who have waited in Mexican border cities for a chance to legally enter the U.S. as the federal government prepares to end the use of Title 42, the pandemic public health order that immigration officials have used 2.7 million times since March 2020 to quickly expel migrants at the southern border without allowing them to request asylum.
Trying to avoid a rush of migrants across the border when Title 42 lifts late Thursday night, the government has urged them to apply for asylum from their home countries or through the CBP One cellphone app, which is supposed to allow migrants to make an appointment to legally enter the country through a port of entry and request asylum.
But migrants in El Paso and Juárez who spoke to the Tribune said the app routinely crashes as they and thousands of other migrants try to get appointments during a 10-minute window each morning. Others don’t have cellphones to even make the attempt.
Jiménez said she spent weeks trying to get an appointment for her family from the migrant camp in Juárez, but every morning the app would crash. When she finally got it to work, the app didn’t register her husband’s and two daughters’ information — she’s not sure whether it was her mistake or the app’s — and it gave her an appointment in Arizona.
The app wouldn’t let her add the rest of her family to the appointment. So she took a bus to Arizona and crossed into the U.S. there without her family two months ago.
“We’re separated because of that stupid app,” her husband, a former Venezuelan law enforcement officer, said on a recent weekday as he sat inside the family’s tent at the migrant camp.
Like many migrants in the camp, their patience is running low. They have thought about crossing the border illegally if they don’t get an appointment soon.
“But for now, we’ll play by their rules, we’ll respect their laws,” Guerrero said.
Last week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that starting Wednesday it will increase the number of available appointments from 740 to 1,000 daily, extend the window for making appointments from 10 minutes to 23 hours and “prioritize noncitizens who have waited the longest.”
Meanwhile, an untold number of migrants have already crossed the Rio Grande at El Paso in recent days and decided to take their chances with Border Patrol. On Monday, about 1,000 migrants were waiting on the American bank of the Rio Grande for Border Patrol agents.
U.S. officials are expecting up to 13,000 migrants to cross the southern border every day once Title 42 lifts — more than double the current average. Already, shelters on both sides of the border are overcrowded, and countless migrants are sleeping on the streets in both El Paso and Juárez.
El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser said during a news conference last week that up to 15,000 migrants are stranded in Juárez.
In El Paso, an estimated 2,000 migrants have gathered around Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the city’s downtown. During the day, families and their children take cover from the sun using cardboard and donated blankets. Some sell cigarettes to collect money for bus tickets out of the city; others ask bystanders for change. The church uses some of its facilities as a shelter in the late afternoons.
El Paso and at least two other Texas border cities — Laredo and Brownsville — have declared a state of emergency as both the federal and state governments have deployed additional military personnel to the border.
The Biden administration ordered 1,500 federal troops to the border to help immigration agents on the ground as Title 42 ends. Earlier this week, Gov. Greg Abbott sent hundreds of additional National Guard members — dubbed the Texas Tactical Border Force — to the border along with Blackhawk helicopters and C-130 cargo planes “to help intercept and repel large groups of migrants trying to enter Texas illegally.”
CBP announced Monday night that agents would conduct a “targeted enforcement operation” in El Paso starting Tuesday. The announcement didn’t provide details but said agents would avoid targeting locations “that would restrain people’s access to essential services or engagement in essential activities to the fullest extent possible.”
On Tuesday morning, migrants who crossed undetected began to turn themselves in to immigration agents in downtown El Paso.
“As we have said repeatedly, individuals who do not have a lawful basis to remain will be removed,” CBP acting Commissioner Troy Miller said in a statement. “Individuals should not listen to the lies of smugglers and instead use lawful pathways to protection.”
Waiting in no man’s land for Border Patrol
On the eastern edge of Juárez on Monday, hundreds of migrants walked across the Rio Grande to U.S. soil and skirted a line of concertina wire that the state deployed as a blockade. They waited next to the river as a helicopter circled above them. Some carried bags of ice, gallons of water and boxes filled with food.
They have been waiting in this no man’s land between the border fence and the river to surrender to Border Patrol agents in hopes that they’ll be allowed to claim asylum rather than be returned to Mexico under Title 42.
But the agents haven’t come.
One woman said she had been waiting a week on the U.S. side and is now making trips back to Juárez for food and water.
“They haven’t picked us up, not even the kids,” said the woman, who was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and aviator glasses. She declined to be identified.
Hundreds of migrants sat beneath a tree, seeking shade. Meanwhile, two Venezuelan men with a Styrofoam cooler were selling empanadas, bottled water and crackers to their fellow migrants.
One of the men, who also didn’t give his name, said he crossed the river about two weeks ago, surrendered to agents and was quickly transported more than 700 miles to San Diego, then expelled to Tijuana, Mexico.
He said he bought a bus ticket back to Juárez and does not want to try requesting asylum again because he’s worried he’ll get deported.
“This time I just hope that I get an appointment on the app,” he said after throwing bags of food and water bottles over the razor wire to waiting migrants.
Others said they got tired of waiting for Border Patrol to apprehend them and returned to the Juárez migrant camp, where children run among tents and makeshift shelters made of blankets and towels.
One of the migrants in the camp was Sergio Ramos, a 36-year-old from El Salvador. He said he thought only Venezuelans could use the CBP One app. When told by a reporter that it was open to migrants from any country, he said he can’t use it anyway — he doesn’t have a cellphone.
“I guess I’ll see if anyone here does me a favor of letting me borrow their phone,” he said.
Rosie Hernandez, 32, said she and her husband left Venezuela in January, leaving their two sons with her mother, and arrived in Juárez in April. Back home, she worked as a radiology technician and earned the equivalent of $7 a month, she said. She wants to work in the U.S. so she can provide for her sons and remodel her mother’s house.
Since arriving at the border, Hernandez has been trying to follow the rules and make an asylum appointment through the app. Every morning, she types in her biographical information, snaps a photo of herself as the app requires and presses the button. Then the app says there are no more appointments left and bounces her to the homepage.
“There’s days I get desperate, I get depressed and I just cry,” she said. “All I need is two years of work in the U.S., after that they can kick me out if they want.”
A 700-mile round trip for an asylum appointment
Jiménez had the same frustration with the app after her family arrived in Juárez in January. After weeks of opening it every day and failing to get an appointment, she said one morning she opened the app and went through the motions without double-checking everything. This time the app gave her an appointment for March 6.
But she quickly realized that the appointment was only for her, not for her husband and children. And that it was in Nogales, Arizona, a 345-mile trip west.
She took a bus to Nogales, leaving her family in Juárez, and made it to her appointment. She was released in Tucson, Arizona, by immigration officials, and there she worked for a day spray-painting the metal bars on the windows of a house after she and other migrants were picked up at a local church by the homeowner for the day job.
She used the money to get a bus ticket to El Paso and then spent six weeks going from one shelter to another — the shelters will allow migrants to stay only a certain number of nights — hoping her family could also get an appointment to legally cross.
She said she and her daughters speak on the phone every day.
“I feel such impotence and rage that they’re so close but that I can’t see them,” Jiménez said as she waited for a bus to take her to Denver. She said she was told that she could stay up to three months in a shelter. She arrived Tuesday morning, and volunteers are helping her look for a shelter, she said.
Ana Pabón, the couple’s 14-year-old daughter, said she doesn’t want to go to the U.S. anymore. She said the obstacles the American government has put up have angered her and given her the impression the U.S. does not want to help vulnerable families like hers. She said she wants to reunite with her mother and move to Canada.
“When I talk to my mom, she gets sad and tells me she wants to come back to Mexico,” Pabón said. “Every time I talk to her, I have to swallow my saliva to get rid of the lump in my throat.”
The family thinks they have a strong argument for receiving U.S. asylum. In 2001, Guererro said, his mother and younger brother were kidnapped from their ranch by Venezuela’s national guard. The incident made news there; their bodies were never found.
For years, Guerrero — who worked as a law enforcement officer in Venezuela’s federal court system — pressured prosecutors to investigate. When nothing happened, he began to worry that he or his family could also be disappeared by authorities.
So in May 2022, the family decided to make the treacherous trek to the U.S.
Guerrero brought newspaper clippings and police reports about the kidnappings with him to show to U.S. authorities. If he can get an appointment and U.S. officials let him enter the country — he says he respects America’s rules and doesn’t want to cross illegally — he plans to file a human rights complaint against the Venezuelan government.
“I want to take this case to the Americans,” he said.
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