Technology issues at the US border plague new migrant applications

Technology issues at the US border plague new migrant applications

  • Written by Bernd Debusmann Jr
  • BBC News, Washington

image source: Getty Images


Black asylum seekers have reported problems uploading their photos to the CBP One app

Activists on the U.S.-Mexico border say the government’s mobile app for U.S. asylum applications is plagued by technical problems and often fails to recognize the faces of black and dark-skinned migrants.

Known as CBP One, the app was introduced by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) in January. Prospective migrants use it to make an appointment to appear at the port of entry.

This is the only way to claim asylum in the United States and be exempted from Title 42, a public health law that allows for expedited deportation. By February 10, more than 20,000 people had used it to make an appointment.

Officials credited the app with reducing detentions at the border, and wanted to use the new technology as part of a larger effort to protect asylum seekers who are often dangerous on their way north.

A record 2.76 million migrants were apprehended in the 2022 fiscal year, which ended in September, with the influx attributable to an increase in the number of asylum seekers from Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba and Nicaragua.

Since then, the numbers have declined, with January’s total of 128,410 down 42% from December’s 221,675 arrests.

But activists say the decline in detentions is at least partly due to technical problems with the app, which make it difficult for migrants, especially those of African descent, to book appointments.

They warn that technological problems could ultimately mean more migrants turn to people-smugglers and potentially deadly, unregulated border crossings.

Advocacy groups are fighting to help with the “deeply flawed” app

A number of migrant rights groups at the border told the BBC that people trying to use the CBP One app face a myriad of challenges, from being unable to meet, geolocation errors and screens freezing before final confirmation.

Some black and dark-skinned migrants have also reported that the app rejects their photos, making the process impossible.

Guerline Jozef, executive director of the San Diego-based Haitian Bridge Alliance, which focuses on Haitians and other migrants of African descent, said she and other colleagues who tried to help migrants navigate the application “had a very difficult time” Photo part.

He said that in the case of at least two families, one from Haiti and the other from Venezuela, he spent up to an hour and a half trying to recognize their pictures in the application, but without success.

Erika Pinheiro, executive director of “Al Otro Lado”, which provides legal and humanitarian support to migrants, said the app was “very flawed”, especially for migrants who use it on older mobile phones or from areas where the signal is spotty.

Regarding facial recognition, Ms. Pinheiro said some migrants have used lights from construction sites when uploading images to the app, as activists have found that “you have to be in really bright light for facial recognition to map your features.”

“People with darker skin get a higher proportion of error messages to the extent that many of them are unable to upload a photo at all,” he added. “There are also factors like the strength of the internet and the quality of the phone. It’s probably a confluence of those factors.”

image source: Getty Images


The CBP One app requires you to upload photos each time you access the app

Both Ms. Jozef and Ms. Pinheiro said their organizations raised the issue with CBP to no avail.

“To me, this is a very frustrating form of gaslighting, because we see it. We don’t figure it out, and now [what we are saying] it is in line with other cross-border providers,” Ms. Pinheiro said.

“Either they say it’s not true, or it’s probably an internet problem,” he added. “I don’t see them being held accountable for this problem. They haven’t told us that they’re taking actual steps to fix it.”

When asked by the BBC about problems with CBP One’s imaging technology, CBP said in a statement that the app “does not use facial recognition technology” but considers photos to be an important security feature.

“One of the security features of the CBP One mobile app is the requirement that an individual take a live photo of themselves each time they access the app,” the statement added. “This security feature is designed to prevent bad actors from using mobile apps.”

The CBP statement did not address the question of whether black and dark-skinned migrants have problems with the application.

Bias in technology?

It remains unclear why the CBP One app sometimes experiences problems with facial recognition technology, and the algorithms behind the app are not publicly known. But experts say they’re not surprised.

A 2019 study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an agency of the Commerce Department, found that facial recognition technology works best on the faces of middle-aged white men, with the highest error rates among black women.

A separate study published by Harvard in 2020 found facial recognition to be the “least accurate” identifier, with an error rate of over 30% for darker-skinned women.

Several police departments, including Boston and San Francisco, have banned the technology, and Amazon has imposed an indefinite global ban on the use of its own facial recognition technology for police purposes, citing bias.

Nina Wang, a researcher at Georgetown University who specializes in government surveillance of immigrant communities, told the BBC that many of the problems with the technology stem from the “training data” used by similar apps.

“[That is] often consist primarily of white male faces,” Ms. Wang said. “That’s pretty key to why these algorithms have such extensive bias problems.”

Ms. Wang said she did not know what the solution to the algorithmic problem would be.

“I would just say that we need to stop using them to make serious decisions that have such serious consequences for people’s lives,” he added. “Essentially, what we’re seeing is that darker-skinned people can’t claim asylum for any other reason than the color of their skin. This is something that has a serious negative impact on people’s livelihoods.”

Raul Pinto, an attorney with the American Immigration Council, said the photo issue and other issues faced by CBP One users could ultimately mean thousands of migrants are left with little recourse as they wait to enter the United States.

“The CBP One application left thousands of people out of the process,” he said.

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