Facing Bias: CBP’s Immigration App Doesn’t Recognize Black Faces, Barring Thousands from Seeking Asylum
"Hardly anyone is getting an asylum appointment," says one nonprofit.
The U.S. government’s immigration app, CBP One, does not recognize dark-skinned people, barring many from seeking asylum, according to nonprofits working at the Mexican border.
Already marginalized, Haitian and African asylum seekers are now experiencing algorithm bias thanks to the app’s facial-recognition technology. This means far fewer Black asylum seekers are being admitted into the United States, according to the nonprofits, since the app’s roll out by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in January.
With Title 42 still in place by court order, the Biden administration announced in early January that the CBP One app would be the only way people at the border can apply for asylum and an exemption from Title 42. Doing so, it claimed, would “reduce wait times and help ensure safe, orderly, and streamlined processing.”
While the app is working for some migrants, it’s created barriers for others, especially those who are most vulnerable, said Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, codirector of the nonprofit Sidewalk School, which provides educational programs for asylum seekers in the Mexican border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros, where many Haitians are living in makeshift camps. Rangel-Samponaro said very few Haitians have been admitted into the United States since the app was introduced. “There are about 4,000 Black asylum seekers waiting in Reynosa,” she said. “And at least another 1,000 Haitians in Matamoros. Hardly anyone is getting an asylum appointment. Neither population is being represented as it should.”
Given the dire need of Haitian and African asylum seekers who suffer discrimination and racial prejudice at the U.S.-Mexico border, she said, the Sidewalk School joined a church group, Kaleo International, in opening a shelter in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, in April. The shelter houses Black asylum seekers, who have been subjected to kidnappings, extortion, and other violence by organized crime while living on the streets.
Another large community of Haitian asylum seekers wait in the Mexican city of Tijuana, at the opposite end of the U.S.-Mexico border. There, nonprofits are experiencing the same problem. “The facial recognition is not picking up [the image] if people have darker skin tones,” said Erika Pinheiro, executive director at Al Otro Lado, a binational legal and humanitarian aid organization. Pinheiro’s organization held a workshop for Haitians in Tijuana on how to use the app a day after it went live on January 12. Because the app cannot map the features of darker-skinned asylum seekers, they cannot upload their photo to receive an asylum appointment, Pinheiro said. “The Haitians at the workshop were getting error after error message on the app,” she said.
Racial bias in facial-recognition technology has long been a problem. It is increasingly used by law enforcement and government agencies to fill databases with biometric information, including fingerprints and iris scans. A 2020 report by Harvard University called this tech the “least accurate” identifier, especially among darker-skinned women, for whom the error rate is higher than 30 percent.
Emmanuella Camille, a staff attorney with the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a nonprofit that aids Haitian and African asylum seekers, said the CBP One app has helped “lighter-skin-toned people from other nations” obtain their asylum appointments, “but not Haitians.” And there are other barriers too. Many asylum seekers have outdated cell phones—if they have them at all—that don’t support the CBP One app and have limited or no access to the internet. “These are big disadvantages for Haitian migrants at the border,” Camille said.
The three nonprofits I spoke to say they have been in daily contact with U.S. Customs and Border Protection about problems with the CBP One app. Last week, CBP introduced a Haitian Creole version of the app, Camille said. It had previously been offered in only Spanish and English.
In the weeks since the app was launched, Rangel-Samponaro said they’ve experimented with ways to get the CBP One app’s facial-recognition technology to work for darker-skinned asylum seekers. One fix they’ve come up with is installing bright construction lights at the shelter in Reynosa, which Haitians and others shine on their faces as they take the photo to upload to the CBP One app. “So far, it seems to be working, so the adults can get past that,” she said. “But it’s still not working for children under the age of six.”
This prevents families from being able to apply for asylum, since the app will accept only one or two members of the family, but not the rest. “I’ve yet to speak with a white asylum seeker who has had the same issue,” she said. “And we help everybody in both cities.”
Another solution is for Black asylum seekers to buy brand-new cell phones. “If you can afford to spend $1,000 on a new cell phone, then you can upload the image no problem. But who can afford that?” she said. “Not anyone living in a migrant camp.”
The Border Chronicle contacted CBP with several detailed questions about the CBP One app, including the problems with its facial-recognition technology. A spokesperson for CBP, Justin Long, said no one was available to respond.
In Haiti, millions are “facing acute hunger, unprecedented levels of gang violence and not one elected official left in the country,” according to a briefing by United Nation’s Security Council in January. The country is also suffering from a deadly cholera outbreak.
In December, the Biden administration expanded and extended temporary protected status to Haitians already living in the United States, citing the country’s multiple political and humanitarian crises. And in January, the administration announced a new parole program for Haitians, Venezuelans, Cubans, and Nicaraguans who can live legally, but temporarily, in the United States for two years. To qualify, they must have a valid passport and be financially supported by someone already living in the United States. They can also only enter by airplane.
These programs make a difference, said Camille, but they don’t help the thousands of Haitians already at the border. Some have been in transit since the devastating earthquake of 2010 in Haiti and have traveled from one country to the next with nowhere to call home.
In January, Camille was in Reynosa and Matamoros to visit with Haitian asylum seekers who are growing desperate, she said. “They’re being told by CBP that they only way they can cross the border is by using this app. This app is the only source of hope for them right now. That they’ll somehow be able to get through.”
In a previous version of this article, The Border Chronicle referred to Erika Pinheiro as staff attorney at Al Otro Lado. She is in fact executive director. The Border Chronicle regrets the error.
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