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In Nogales, new process has asylum seekers ask for Title 42 exceptions using a CBP app

A new function within an app from Customs and Border Protection gives asylum seekers waiting at the U.S.-Mexico border the chance to ask for an exception to Title 42 restrictions. 

Human rights activists have long pointed out that restricting asylum at the border goes against U.S. and international law. Nonetheless, since being enacted almost three years ago, Title 42 has been used to keep tens of thousands of asylum seekers from entering the U.S. and beginning their cases. 

The only way to bypass the protocol at a port of entry is through a humanitarian exception. Normally that’s done through a lawyer. But this month, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced a new process.

“This can be done on one’s smartphone with an app called CBP One. The app is designed to discourage individuals from congregating near the border and creating unsafe conditions,” he said.

Because Title 42 is in place, the border is largely still closed to asylum claims. For months, asylum seekers hoping to cross into the U.S. on an emergency basis would enter a waiting list to start the process with lawyers working along the border. CBP One is now the only way families can get an appointment. 

Asylum seekers download the app, create a profile and fill out biographical information to make an appointment at the port of entry, where border officers assess their case.

Bonnie Arellano, supervisory program manager with CBP’s Tucson Field Office, says the Nogales Port of Entry is one of eight ports borderwide now using the CBP One function.

“We have been using this program through the Tucson Field Office previous to that as part of our appointment efforts,” she said. “So the area was more familiar with the process than perhaps other locations.”

Arellano says before the CBP One app became publicly available, her office used it internally, inputting information given to them by lawyers at the border who were asking for exemptions for their clients. She says the app became directly available to asylum seekers in Nogales about a week ago. She says it's early on in the process, but she believes opening up the app to asylum seekers could help their cases run more smoothly.

“This really helps people to do things themselves, and I believe it’s a safer, more organized way of doing these exceptions,” she said. 

Chelsea Sachau, an attorney with the pro-bono legal advocacy group Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, has worked on exemption requests for asylum seekers in Nogales for more than a year. She says the wait to get an appointment in Nogales under that process could take months, and disproportionately relied on NGOs or other aid groups.

“So any step, including CBP One, that … places the responsibility back into the U.S. government’s hands, is a step in the right direction,” she said. “Because you don't have to rely on a third party for help, necessarily, and so it is providing more individuals with access to trying to get an appointment spot.”

Still, Sachau warns the app is no substitute for an actual asylum process, and says that’s not possible as long as Title 42 exists. The protocol is in place indefinitely right now as two separate cases over its future play out in federal court.

Meanwhile, Sachau says CBP One has its own problems. It’s only available in English and Spanish right now, and doesn’t work on all smartphones. In Nogales, she says appointment slots fill up within a few minutes each morning.

“It’s still functionally closed,” she said. “Even with the app, people are having to log in every morning at 7 a.m. and try again and again and again,  every single day they’re being denied appointments. You know, from the safety of the U.S., you can think, ‘it’s just an appointment, there will be another one,’ but what’s really at stake for these families are their children’s livelihood and wellbeing.”

That’s what Ilda Vasquez, an asylum seeker from Guatemala, was facing just a few days ago. 

I met her at an aid center in Nogales, Sonora, called the Kino Border Initiative in December, when Title 42 was slated to end by court order. She told me she came to the border with her two young daughters after fleeing an abusive relationship with their father back home.

“He hit me many times, he even wanted to kill me. Here, he made a scar with a knife,” she said in Spanish, pointing to a crescent-shaped mark on nose. She pulled down her face mask to show another  deep purple scar where she said he burned her with a cigarette. 

She’d hoped to ask for asylum in the U.S. and join her sister in Colorado. But like thousands of others, she was blocked because of Title 42. 

But this month, she was able to get an exemption through CBP One. I reached her by phone in Colorado. She told me in the weeks leading up to the appointment, her daughters’ father had gotten ahold of her phone number and was looking for them in Nogales.

“When the appointment arrived, it was truly a relief, it was like a window,” she said. “Here I feel safer, because it is difficult for him to come here. In Mexico, we were very, very afraid.”

Vasquez says she feels safer now, with her family, and her daughters are starting school soon. But, like thousands of others waiting for their cases, she says she knows her journey has only just gotten started.

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Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.