As rain fell in Matamoros on a gray March morning, around a hundred asylum seekers huddled around a small storefront within view of an international bridge into Texas. Amid the din of cross-border traffic, anxious murmurs spread through the crowd just a few minutes before 10 a.m. In a sort of tired ritual, dozens of asylum seekers pulled out their smartphones—some even held multiple phones for other family members—to open the CBP One app and try to book an appointment for the hearing that they are entitled to under U.S. law. As of early January, the app has been the only way to request such a hearing in the United States. A few dozen slots for appointments with immigration agents in Brownsville, right across the border, were set to be released at the top of the hour. 

At exactly 10 a.m., shouting started. All around, asylum seekers jammed their fingers against their phone screens, trying to get the app to reload. Some, who knew I was a reporter, crowded around me, holding their phone screens out. On at least a dozen screens, I saw the tangled hieroglyphics of broken code: “<HTML> <HEAD> <TITLE> SSL Error</Title>.” The asylum seekers, most of whom were fleeing economic and societal breakdown and repression in Venezuela, didn’t need to know English or HTML to understand what the message meant. Their one option to cross legally into the U.S.—the opportunity many had waited months for—was not available that day, as it was not the day before, and the day before that. One man from Venezuela and another from Nicaragua showed me photo rolls of screenshots: every day, for a week, the app had crashed on them, a common experience, as I reported earlier this month. “We are waiting because we want to cross in an orderly, legal way,” the Venezuelan, traveling with his six-year-old daughter, told me. “We want to do things right. We want to work.” 

When the Biden administration released the CBP One app in January, it described it as a modern tool to help introduce order to an asylum process that the administration had been running improvisationally, with predictable results. Upon taking office, the administration vowed to end Title 42, a federal health statute the Trump administration instituted during the pandemic to block all asylum seekers from entering the U.S. But when the administration announced it would do so in April 2022, it was sued by numerous Republican state attorneys general, including Ken Paxton of Texas, and courts temporarily reinstated the statute. Meanwhile, as policies fluctuated, Border Patrol encountered a record number of families and individuals on the border, hundreds of thousands of whom have turned themselves in to immigration officials with the hopes of seeking asylum. Trying to avoid pandemonium across the border, the Biden administration created the CBP One system, under which those with the app wait in Mexico until they can book an asylum screening where they can then gain parole status in the U.S. as they await a judge’s final ruling on their case. Everyone who doesn’t use the app is immediately deported, either back to Mexico or their home countries. 

For many migrants, though, the app has brought not order but cruelty dressed up as technical incompetence. Right by the international bridge, I spoke with Yakelin, a Venezuelan mother who had arrived in Matamoros with her husband, nine-year-old son, and five-year-old daughter. She ignored the rain, having gotten used to weathering the elements after arriving in the city in September and living in a tent in a shanty village along the border wall. When the CBP One app was released in January, Yakelin had tried each day to get an appointment. Finally, late in the month, her husband managed to get one on his phone, but only for himself and their son. On the day of the appointment, he went to the port with their child to implore Customs and Border Protection agents to let the whole family cross together. The agents explained there was no flexibility: with two appointments, only two of them could cross. The family could either separate or continue waiting together in Matamoros. They decided to remain together. “The app has failed for us so many times, in so many different ways,” Yakelin said. 

In one way, the CBP One app has worked: Border Patrol has reported far fewer migrant encounters—both asylum requests and apprehensions—at the southern border: in February, the agency reported about 155,000, down from over 250,000 in December. The app has succeeded in allowing Biden to appear tough on border security, which polls show is a top concern for swing voters. Of great help to Biden: tens of thousands of asylum seekers have persisted in trying to use CBP One to cross the border in “the right way.” But with so many bugs in the app and the IT systems supporting it, and so few appointment slots available, CBP One has become a sort of digital border wall for asylum seekers, preventing them from getting the hearing that they are promised under U.S. law. The asylum system, established under both federal law and international treaty, guarantees that those fleeing persecution—for their “race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group”—are given the chance to argue their case for refuge in court before being deported; in the fiscal year 2022, about 46 percent won those hearings. The system is meant to ensure that asylum seekers aren’t sent back to potential danger. 

In Matamoros, asylum seekers worry that they’re already in peril as they wait in some sort of endless bureaucratic loop: standing in a line that never gets shorter for a turn that never comes. (Before the Trump administration instituted Title 42, asylum seekers would often also wait months for their screenings but had, on their own initiative, created ordered lists guaranteeing their spots in line.) 

Now that some have waited for months for an appointment to no avail, conflict and graft are becoming more common. Fights are breaking out in tent camps, and rumors abound of opportunists somehow selling CBP One appointments. Many who haven’t gotten appointments worry about safety in Matamoros as they wait: in early March, just three blocks away from the bridge, four U.S. citizens from South Carolina were shot at and kidnapped—with one Mexican woman dying in the crossfire—and violence and extortion against migrants is common.

Yakelin was angry. “We have not seen a single person in Matamoros get an appointment for over five days,” she told me. Cell service is poor in the border town, and most asylum seekers are on limited-data plans, so they often huddle together at the same storefronts and shelters where Wi-Fi is available. At these hubs, other asylum seekers repeated the same message: no one was getting through. “And when we do make it through, there are no appointments available on the calendar,” Yakelin said. 

The day before, Yakelin had heard that someone had gotten an appointment in Reynosa, across the border from McAllen. “It’s not fair that people are getting in elsewhere—maybe we should go there,” she said. Priscilla Orta, an attorney with the nonprofit Lawyers for Good Government, had crossed from Brownsville that day to give basic guidance about the app to asylum seekers. Orta told Yakelin she was better off waiting in Matamoros, where it was safer than in Reynosa and most other border cities. Orta also explained each CBP One user had an equal chance of getting an appointment, no matter where they were along the frontier, and no matter when they had arrived there. Unlike the handwritten lists of old, with a clear order, the competition on the CBP One app means that, every day, asylum seekers enter a sort of lottery with obscure odds. “You have just as good a chance here in Matamoros as anywhere else,” Orta assured Yakelin. 

¡No mames!” Yakelin responded in disbelief. “This can’t be our best option. There has to be another way.” When I spoke to her a week later, Yakelin was resigned. She told me she had shown up every day since we met to try to get an appointment. Her family still hadn’t had any luck.