Both the United States of America and the United Kingdom face an ongoing humanitarian and political crisis as displaced people continue to risk their lives, making unsafe and illegal journeys to the countries in order to seek asylum there. Whilst the British government does not yet have a clear strategy for overcoming this problem, the U.S. has already turned to technology to combat the crisis. In this article, we will examine the positive aspects and criticisms of the American technological strategy and look at its possible use in the British context.
The United States has long been described as a nation of immigrants, with more than 1 million people arriving in the country each year. Of this one million, around 31% are Hispanic and come from Central or South America. Since 1980, when the federal Refugee Resettlement Program was created, the U.S. has welcomed 3 million refugees, with 30,000 people being granted asylum in 2019. (https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2020/08/20/key-findings-about-u-s-immigrants/) Each year, many migrants enter the U.S. by crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The movement of people over this border was restricted as early as the 1880s when Chinese migrants used the route to enter the U.S. despite the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Since the 1910s, the U.S. government has enforced the restriction of Mexican and other South American citizens, with every administration creating policies to limit the number of people crossing and to properly process asylum seekers before they enter the U.S. Under the Biden administration, the United States of America Customs and Border Protection (CBP) launched the latest iteration of the CBP One Application in May 2023. It has become the primary method through which asylum seekers can request an appointment at ports of entry while ensuring their eligibility for asylum.
When this mobile application was first launched in October 2020, it was mainly aimed at companies wanting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border for exporting and importing goods. These companies used it to apply for the right to enter the US with the Arrival-Departure Record Card on behalf of their employees. It also permitted the inspection of perishable cargo to be scheduled. Following the initial success of the application in the two years since its launch, the use of the application has expanded to be used by all people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum at a port of entry. Through the CBP One application, migrants can schedule appointments before they arrive at the border and confirm their eligibility for asylum. This year, the application was further expanded to be able to serve people without documentation who are seeking protection from violence, poverty, or persecution. Without a scheduled appointment at the border, migrants will be denied entry to the U.S.. If they cross without permission, their passage will be deemed illegal and they would be subject to stricter consequences such as deportation.
For many years before the launch of CBP One, the U.S. authorities have not been able to cope with the number of migrants arriving at the ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexican border and process them all. In the absence of available legal passages into the country, asylum seekers often felt forced to make illegal passages, leaving them vulnerable to gangs and people traffickers. Crossing the border illegally can be extremely dangerous, putting lives at risk and leaving them open to dangerous situations such as kidnapping and extortion. Luis Miranda, spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security said that “[the launch of the CBP One application] is part of the administration’s goals to create legal, safe and humane processes while imposing consequences on those who do not use available processes.”
However, the application has attracted criticism from migrant rights groups. Some have said that it adds another step in the dangerous migration route to the US. The application is essentially a lottery system to obtain highly competitive appointment slots for an interview before crossing the border. Consequently, users must log in each day contributing to daily stress. Although the CBP is providing more and more appointments available each day to try and speed up the process, it has been reported that the application doesn’t consistently improve waiting times. Asylum seekers have been forced to wait in unsafe places as shelters in border towns are often full. This can leave them vulnerable to similar dangerous situations, such as kidnapping and extortion, that they might face at the hands of traffickers. If migrants cannot find a place in a shelter, they can be left homeless without basic resources like food, running water, and electricity. In fact, according to an NPR report, (https://www.npr.org/2023/05/12/1175948642/migrants-are-frustrated-with-the-asylum-claim-app-even-after-the-latest-overhaul) some migrants have decided to turn back to illegal routes. However, this is a big risk for migrants as the Department of Homeland Security is implementing much harsher consequences for people entering illegally, making it almost impossible for these people to request asylum.
In addition, there have been lots of problems with the technology itself which often glitches and does not load properly. It was originally only released in English and Spanish, irrespective of the fact that many people using the application only speak Haitian Creole or indigenous languages. There were also serious issues reported with the application's facial recognition software. It was used to verify that the user was a real person and not malicious software but did not recognise darker skin tones. Although the application is regularly reviewed and updated to fix these technological issues, the process can cause high levels of stress for asylum seekers who are forced to rely solely on the technology to progress through the migration system.
Activist groups have denounced the application as an unacceptable barrier that necessitates resources and technological literacy that some vulnerable migrants often do not have. The application requires a smartphone which has the latest iOS or Android software updates. The user must have a strong internet connection which can be difficult to find when hundreds of people log on at the same time to schedule an appointment. Alternatively, some people decide to purchase mobile data which can cost up to $5 a day - a resource that most migrants do not have. The need to pay for an internet connection can leave people vulnerable to exploitation from gangs who prey on those waiting at the border. In addition, using a smartphone requires electricity to charge devices, which is also not reliably available, as well as a certain level of technological literacy that marginalises some of the most vulnerable asylum seekers such as the elderly and those from a poor background.
Despite these criticisms, the application is becoming more and more entrenched in the immigration system and shows no sign of stopping. Indeed, as of June 2023, the implementation of the application seems to be deterring illegal entry to the U.S. (https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/national-media-release/cbp-releases-february-2023-monthly-operational-update); the number of people trying to enter the U.S. illegally dropped to recorded lows after the latest iteration of the application was released.
There are some similarities between the American and British immigration context which might make it possible for the British Border Force to introduce a similar application. Like the U.S.-Mexican border, refugees amass at the closest point to the British coast on mainland Europe, Calais, before trying to make the dangerous journey over the English Channel. After the long and hard journey through Europe, those who want to seek asylum in the United Kingdom must endure terrible conditions in Northern France and dangerous journeys at the hand of people smugglers because of the lack of safe and legal passages to Britain.
In December 2020, the British government released a five-year UK Border Strategy, in which technology plays a large part. It was proposed that short-term travellers could apply for a digital e-visa and the Border Force would use advanced risk analytics to identify high-risk travellers. The same software could be used to filter asylum requests submitted through an application similar to the American CBP One application. Although there have been many criticisms of the CBP One application, the implementation of one by the British Border Force would help the refugee crisis in Northern France, even if it is not a perfect solution. This type of application would, at least, create a clear path to seeking asylum in the UK and ultimately save the lives put in peril when relying on traffickers to make the dangerous crossing over the English Channel.