CBP to roll out asylum app in attempt to discourage illegal crossings

A group of immigrants stood on the riverbanks in Matamoros on Dec. 21, 2022, watching as dozens crossed into the U.S. through the Rio Grande before surrendering to border agents. (Valerie Gonzalez | The Monitor)

MATAMOROS — Immigrants, the U.S. government and volunteers are preparing Thursday to begin using a new program designed to discourage asylum seekers from crossing through the border while expediting their cases.

On Tuesday, immigrants like 37-year-old Jose Rodriguez from Venezuela were talking to their neighbors living inside the Matamoros encampment about a new process to enter the U.S.

“They say that the process for us to enter the country will be speeded up,” Rodriguez said.

Like many, he came to the border several months ago hoping to receive an exemption to the current border rule barring entry into the U.S. known as Title 42.

The exemption is a workaround for the pandemic-induced rule which remains precariously in place due to contradicting court rulings and which now sits before a Supreme Court slow-rolling a decision.

For months, organizations like the Sidewalk School working in Brownsville and Matamoros became consumed by large groups clamoring for help signing up for consideration into the exemption process. Hundreds of people received entry into the U.S. through that process.

But on Thursday, the process will change.

President Joe Biden announced a week ago his administration was switching the program from one that included third-parties, like the Sidewalk School, to one that depends on an app called CBP One.

“Instead of a safe and orderly process at the border, we have a patchwork system that simply doesn’t work as it should,” Biden said, citing a lack of asylum officers, judges and funding.

The president said his administration took steps to “stiffen enforcement” and to “put in place a faster process to decide a claim of asylum.”

The news wasn’t as welcome to thousands who signed up through the old process and lingered on the waiting list for months.

“I think change is hard for everybody, especially if you’ve been waiting in Reynosa or Matamoros for two or three months,” Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, the Sidewalk School’s co-director, said Wednesday.

The co-directors are so well known by immigrants newly arrived and those who spent months waiting to cross that they are frequently and swiftly surrounded by large crowds offering their phone numbers and pleading to get on the exemption process.

Now, she and her team spent the days leading to Thursday explaining the new process involving the app and touting its benefits.

“It stops a lot of the fraud that goes on. Also it puts control into the hands of the asylum seeker where they should have control about what’s happening in their life,” Rangel-Samponaro said.

Rodriguez, who The Monitor spoke to Wednesday, is currently living by the river on the Mexican side of the border along with about 2,000 others, many of them Venezuelans and Haitians, who are frustrated with the many changes unfolding on a topic that could determine the trajectory of their lives.

Last month, many of the encampment residents gathered by the river’s edge as dozens crossed through the border to surrender to border agents in the U.S. after Title 42 was announced it would end and allow admission into the country. Through legal action, it was postponed indefinitely.

Biden said they are hoping the new program discourages illegal crossings, warning immigrants that if they cross into the country in between ports of entry, they will become ineligible for the exemption process.

“If the U.S. is providing this process for us to cross, then I don’t understand the reason why or motivation to violate border law,” Rodriguez said, expecting illegal crossings to subside.

Rodriguez said a friend of his crossed into the U.S. and received an immigration court date three years away.

“Imagine that,” he said. “That would be enough to build up my personal economy and contribute to the economy around me.”

Rodriguez already downloaded the app on his phone and is hoping to sign up as soon as it goes live on Thursday. He left his country for safety reasons, but also noted political corruption and a poor economy.

He said he’d be grateful just for the chance to try out the American Dream, even if his claims are eventually denied.

“If I get to go through and they give me two, three or one year, whatever they want to give me, I would be very grateful,” Rodriguez said. “I would comply with the law, make the most of it, and if they tell me to get out, I’ll get out.”