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Asylum Seekers Encounter a New Digital Border: Their Smartphones

September 15, 2023 (1 min read)

Austin Kocher, Ph.D., Sept. 13, 2023

"Migrants around the world who are seeking asylum in North America and Europe are finding pathways to safety increasingly blocked—not only by physical borders but also by digital borders. The most recent example of this technological obstruction in the U.S. context is the introduction of a smartphone app known as CBP One, which the government has been using since January to manage the flow of asylum seekers at or near the U.S.-Mexico border. Beginning in January 2023, asylum seekers faced new harsher consequences for seeking asylum directly at ports of entry or crossing unlawfully between ports of entry. CBP required migrants to download the CBP One app onto their smartphones, register their information, and schedule an appointment at a port of entry. CBP representatives claimed that this would streamline border processing, and for many migrants it did. But for others, the app introduced new digital barriers that reflected old ones: migrants with darker skin reported trouble with the facial liveness test, many migrants did not own newer (and more expensive) smartphones that could run the app well, or access to electricity and the Internet connection. The app disadvantaged migrants who were living at community shelters and camps on the outskirts of border towns in which the Internet was inaccessible. My recent article on CBP One titled “Glitches in the Digitization of Asylum: How CBP One Turns Migrants’ Smartphones into Mobile Borders,” unpacks the various types of technological hurdles that migrants have faced when trying to use the app, and further attempts to analyze how this app fits within the broader landscape of borders, migration, and technology. But in this blog, I want to expand on those aspects of the digitization of asylum that represent a real concern for the right to ask for asylum going forward. ... "