Photo: Jose Luis González/Reuters
The US government’s new mobile app that allows migrants to claim asylum at the US-Mexico border is preventing many black people from making their claims because of facial recognition bias in the technology, immigration advocates say.
Nonprofits helping black asylum seekers find that the app, CBP One, fails to register many dark-skinned people, effectively denying them the right to apply for entry into the US.
People who have come to the southwestern border from Haiti and African countries in particular fall victim to apparent algorithm bias in the technology the app relies on.
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Often belittled within the already marginalized population of people trying to migrate to the US, black people within that group now face yet another hurdle.
Proponents protest that since the app’s rollout by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) last month, the algorithm problems are sharply reducing the number of black asylum seekers who can fill out their applications.
The app works for some migrants but blocks others, especially those who are most vulnerable, said Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, co-director of the nonprofit Sidewalk School, which provides educational programs for asylum seekers in the Mexican cities of Reynosa and Matamoros. , near the eastern end of the Texas border, where many Haitians live in makeshift camps. It also runs a shelter in Reynosa with the Kaleo International church group.
“There are about 4,000 black asylum seekers waiting in Reynosa and at least another 1,000 Haitians in Matamoros. Hardly anyone gets an asylum appointment. Neither population is being represented as it should be,” she said.
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With the Title 42 public health law still in effect following the court’s latest ruling, and last month expanded to include Haitians, Nicaraguans and Cubans in addition to Venezuelans as restricted nationalities, in yet another controversial twist in the Biden administration’s immigration policy, options for asylum seekers at the border have further diminished.
The government announced in early January that the new CBP One mobile app would be the only way for migrants arriving at the border to apply for asylum and be exempted from Title 42 restrictions.”
In the Mexican city of Tijuana, on the other side of the US-Mexico border, near San Diego, another large community of Haitian asylum seekers is waiting and experiencing the same issues with the app, according to nonprofits that help them, such as its people from African countries and other black migrants trying to enter.
“The facial recognition doesn’t pick up [images] when people are dark-skinned,” said Erika Pinheiro, a staff attorney at Al Otro Lado, a binational legal and humanitarian aid agency.
Pinheiro’s organization held a workshop for Haitians in Tijuana on how to use the app the day after it went live on January 12. But because the app can’t map out the features of many dark-skinned asylum seekers, they can’t upload their photos to get an asylum appointment with U.S. immigration authorities, Pinheiro said.
“The Haitians in the workshop were getting error after error message in the app,” she said.
Rangel-Samponaro noted that others are also being blocked. “We’ve also seen it affect Venezuelans who are dark-skinned,” she said.
Racial bias in facial recognition technology has long been a problem. Increasingly used by law enforcement and government agencies to populate databases with biometric information, including fingerprints and iris scans, a 2020 report from Harvard University called it the “least accurate” identifier, especially among dark-skinned women whose error rate is higher than 30%.
Emmanuella Camille, a staff attorney at the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a nonprofit that helps Haitian and African asylum seekers, said the CBP One app has helped “lighter-skinned people from other countries” get their asylum appointments “but Haitians not”. and other black applicants.
In addition to the facial recognition technology not registering them, there are other barriers. Many asylum seekers have outdated mobile phones – if they have mobile phones at all – that do not support the CBP One app and often have no or limited access to the internet.
All three nonprofits told the Guardian that they have been in daily contact with the US CBP about problems with the app. Last week, CBP introduced a Haitian Creole version of the app, Camille said. Before that, it was only offered in Spanish and English.
Camille said migrants are “being told by CBP that the only way they can cross the border is to use this app… [It’s] the only source of hope for them right now.” According to Rangel-Samponaro, advocates experimented with ways to make the technology work for dark-skinned asylum seekers. One solution they’ve come up with is installing bright construction lights at the shelter in Reynosa, which shine Haitians and others on their faces as they take the photo to upload to the app.
“So far it seems to be working, so the adults can get past that,” she said. “But it still doesn’t work for kids under six.”
This prevents families from applying for asylum.
“I have not yet spoken to a white asylum seeker who has had the same problem,” she said. “And we help everyone in both cities.”
Another solution is for black asylum seekers to buy brand new mobile phones. “If you can afford to spend $1,000 on a new cell phone, you can upload the image without any problems. But who can afford that?” said Rangel-Samponaro. “No one who lives in a migrant camp.”
CBP did not respond with pre-publication comments after being approached by The Guardian with questions.