Migrants wait on the banks of the Rio Grande river to be processed by US border officials after crossing from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico – Copyright AFP Ludovic MARIN
Faced with confusing rule changes, rumors spread by people smugglers and a complicated online application process, migrants waiting at the US-Mexican border say they feel trapped in a legal labyrinth.
Like thousands of others camped out in the shadow of the border wall, Michel, a construction worker from Venezuela, had no idea what the expiration of pandemic-era restrictions this week would mean for him.
“We don’t know what’s happening,” the 35-year-old, who did not want to give his full name, told AFP in Ciudad Juarez, where 40 migrants died in a detention center fire in March.
Michel arrived in the city just south of El Paso, Texas a month earlier with his wife and five-year-old daughter after a dangerous overland journey from South America.
His frustration grew after another failed attempt to make an appointment to request asylum through a smartphone app created by US Customs and Border Patrol.
“They’re making things more difficult,” he said.
Title 42, the rule that lapses overnight Thursday-Friday, was put in place under former president Donald Trump, ostensibly to prevent people with Covid-19 from entering the United States.
In practice, it has been little more than a crude tool to swiftly expel undocumented migrants.
But hopes among those waiting at the border that its end would make claiming asylum easier have given way to fears that it could actually become even harder.
Another rule called Title 8 means that people caught entering the United States illegally can not only be deported but also face a five-year ban on applying for legal entry.
Many migrants have already sold all their belongings to pay people smugglers who promise to help them cross the border.
– Discrimination, surveillance concerns –
Migrants are supposed to use the CBP One smartphone app created by US Customs and Border Patrol to set up an interview appointment.
But users report widespread difficulties doing so, while Amnesty International has criticized its mandatory use as discriminatory since it requires access to mobile devices and the internet.
The rights group said there were also “serious privacy, discrimination and surveillance concerns” due to the app’s use of facial recognition and GPS technologies.
Gloria, a 56-year-old Guatemalan who fled an abusive ex-partner, has not even downloaded the app.
“They say you need a sponsor in the United States and I don’t have one,” she said, unaware that the requirement applies to those applying under a special program for migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
– ‘Don’t be fooled’ –
To support his family and pay for the internet usage on his cellphone, Michel regularly leaves the border camp in search of odd jobs while his wife tries to make an appointment.
Each time he leaves he does so fearing that while he is away the app will work again and he will not be able to scan his face, a requirement of the process.
Until now, users have had a short window of time each day to schedule an appointment.
US authorities have said they will allow additional time to complete requests and increase the number of appointments available to approximately 1,000 each day from Friday.
Customs and Border Patrol said it aimed to “cut out smugglers who are preying on noncitizens” by prioritizing appointments for those who have been waiting the longest.
Mexico has urged migrants not to be deceived by people smugglers spreading rumors that they will be able to enter the United States when Title 42 is lifted.
“Don’t be fooled. Don’t be extorted by smugglers who put you at risk,” President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said.
The confusion has led to a large number of migrants crossing the Rio Grande river between the two countries to surrender to border officials and request asylum ahead of the end of Title 42.
Michel, however, keeps trying to get an appointment through legal channels — though so far without success.
“They’re not capable of giving us an option with a better chance of entering. What they do means that we have problems and accidents. They don’t see that. They see what’s convenient for them,” he said.