WASHINGTON — Etienne Termulis spent nine days trying to make an appointment with the U.S. government for a chance to seek asylum.
The process is part of a new border management plan the Biden administration announced this year to decrease the number of illegal crossings at the southern border. But immigration advocates say and some migrants’ experiences show that it is far from the “fair, orderly and humane” system the president has promised.
To complete an application for the government program, migrants must use an app, called C.B.P. One, on a smartphone in a location with decent internet access. That is where things got tricky for Mr. Termulis, who is Haitian.
Because the shelter where he was staying in Reynosa, Mexico, did not have internet, he, his wife and their 6-year-old daughter had to venture into the city center to find a signal. Reynosa is one of the country’s more violent cities, dominated by cartels that kidnap, rape and extort migrants.
“I have to risk my life just to get an appointment,” Mr. Termulis, 47, said of the repeated trips into town.
Mr. Termulis and his wife struggled to capture the photograph required for the application for facial recognition. And when they did take the picture and managed to upload it, there were no appointments left.
The difficulties Mr. Termulis faced are just some of the complications with President Biden’s signature border plan.
Mr. Biden came into office pledging to return humanity to the immigration system and to reopen access to asylum after the Trump administration systematically restricted it. Two years later, critics say the Biden administration’s immigration policies are less about broadly restoring the international right to seek asylum and more focused on enforcement measures to deter migrants fleeing authoritarian countries and economic devastation from coming to the United States.
But the Biden administration’s turn to these increasingly restrictive measures is intended to help manage the record number of border crossings amid relentless Republican attacks and as it prepares for the expiration on May 11 of the public health measure, known as Title 42, that allowed the authorities to swiftly expel migrants.
Mr. Biden’s plan has several components: It expands the use of a government app for migrants to apply for a humanitarian exemption to Title 42, which mostly shut down access to asylum since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
The administration also created legal pathways for people from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to be eligible for a two-year stay in the United States, while also expelling people from those four countries to Mexico if they crossed the border illegally. Those who do are also ineligible for the humanitarian parole program.
Immigration advocates criticize the policies for trying to manage immediate problems rather than seeking broader changes. But the policies have achieved the administration’s goal of bringing down the number of border crossings.
The options are confusing, and migrants and advocates say the U.S. government has yet to clearly communicate the new policies to migrants.
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In some cases, migrants do not know about either option; if they do, they do not know whether they are eligible. If a migrant does not have a sponsor lined up in the United States to support them, then the humanitarian exemption option is better for them. And for migrants who have been waiting in Mexico for months in anticipation of the end of Title 42, applying for the humanitarian exemption can seem to be the fastest way to get to the United States.
In the past two years in particular, border policies have not been enforced consistently, leading to more confusion about who is allowed to seek refuge in the country. The U.S. immigration system has long been a maze of benefits and backlogs, and it worsens each year Congress neglects to update decades-old laws.
For years, foreigners have faced dwindling legal options to enter the United States. So the creation of legal pathways for migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela — who have been fleeing authoritarian and unstable governments in increasing numbers — was a welcome development for human rights advocates. But they argue that these legal options should be available to all migrants in need.
“It is a short-term solution, and it smacks of politics more than a solution that gets to the root of the problem,” said Ana Lorena Delgadillo, the director of the migrant-advocacy nonprofit Foundation for Justice, which is based on Mexico. She and others argue that a lack of legal pathways to the United States will continue to drive migrants to risk their lives and enter illegally.
Still, immigration advocates advise that the two-year humanitarian parole is a better option for asylum seekers because it provides them with stability in the United States and permission to work. Most migrants who are given exemptions to the public health rule are recorded as entering the country illegally and have to wait for years to appear in immigration court.
Applying for humanitarian parole begins with a sponsor in the United States who commits to providing financial support to the benefactor for two years. Once the government approves the sponsor, the benefactor submits additional information and must have official travel documents like a visa or a passport to travel to the United States.
Haitians, especially, have faced problems with the new parole program because there is not a fully functioning government in place to reliably issue official travel documents. Since the assassination of Haiti’s president in July 2021, the Caribbean country has become increasingly unstable, ceding more control to gangs.
Since the program was announced, many Haitians have been crowding local migration centers with suitcases and bags, trying to get their documents, said Representative Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, Democrat of Florida, who closely tracks Haitian migrant issues. Extortionists have been demanding large sums of money to provide Haitians with their paperwork, according to a local news report.
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Ms. Cherfilus-McCormick said the Biden administration needed to create a process that took into account the particular challenges of people from specific countries.
“We were asking them to look at the circumstances and to actually create a real process that will really work,” she said.
Despite the problems with gaining access to the program, Mr. Biden pointed to it as a success in his State of the Union address last month.
Parole is one of the few options the executive branch can offer without Congress’s permission.
“This is a very novel approach to building lawful and safe pathways premised on the foundational point, which historically has been proven true,” Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, recently said. “That people will wait if we deliver for them a lawful and safe pathway to come here.”
Twenty Republican-led states disagree, saying the humanitarian parole program is essentially a new visa program that Congress did not approve.
Immigration advocates and some Democrats are also critical of the new plan, but for different reasons. They say these and other measures the administration has said it will put in place — as well as policies that are under consideration, such as reviving the practice of detaining migrant families — have striking similarities with Trump-era policies that were widely condemned because they restricted access to asylum.
Before Trump-era restrictions, migrants could request asylum when they crossed the border. Biden administration officials reject any comparison to the previous administration and say their policies are focused on finding ways to decrease the number of illegal crossings and expand migrants’ ability to seek legal pathways.
Currently, border authorities can swiftly expel migrants under Title 42. But the administration has said it plans to continue expulsions to Mexico through longstanding immigration enforcement law and will speed up the process of screening migrants to see if they fear persecution — a process that immigration advocates characterize as rushed asylum screenings.
Late last year, the city of El Paso was overwhelmed with Nicaraguan migrants released from government custody because the United States had not been expelling them back to their country for diplomatic reasons. Shelters were at capacity, and many were sleeping on the streets.
But after the policy was put in place, the decrease in illegal crossings was almost immediate — so much that some Border Patrol agents who had been assigned to administrative duties to process the high numbers of migrants were returning to their original job of policing the border.
“It’s day and night,” said Ruben Garcia, the executive director of Annunciation House, a nonprofit in El Paso that helps migrants with shelter and transportation.
According to data provided by the Homeland Security Department, some 7,800 Cubans, 5,100 Haitians and 1,600 Nicaraguans were approved for the sponsored parole program and had arrived in the United States as of Feb. 17.
The Biden administration began the parole program for Venezuelans in October. Since then, nearly 22,000 Venezuelans had arrived in the United States as of Feb. 17.
For the other option, which is not a legal pathway but rather a safer way of reaching the United States than swimming across the Rio Grande, migrants waiting in Mexico have been getting up in the early hours to try to secure an appointment through C.B.P. One before the app was working seamlessly. Appointments have been filling up within 10 to 15 minutes.
Capturing the photograph for the application has been especially difficult — an issue that advocates and migrants have said has come up among many people with darker skin tones.
“People are trying for hours to simply take a picture, and the app could not recognize their faces,” Guerline M. Jozef, the co-founder and executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, an organization that helps people seeking asylum. “Migrants were trying everything. In tents, it was too dark outside, the sun was too bright. None of it was working.”
Ms. Jozef spent several days in Mexico in early January and February, explaining the new options to thousands of migrants.
At the Kaleo shelter in Reynosa, where the Termulis family has been staying, food, lodging and medical care are available to migrants. But good internet service is still a challenge, said Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, the director of the shelter.
Mr. Termulis and his family had been rising before dawn to try to be ready for the virtual queue that, until this week, opened at 6 a.m. daily and offered appointments for two weeks later. Appointments now open at 8 a.m.
A Homeland Security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal data, said that more than 46,000 migrants from over 85 countries had made appointments. Venezuelans and Haitians made up the nationalities of those who had secured the most appointments.
Mr. Termulis eventually scheduled an interview for himself and his wife, but in a frustrating twist, neither was able to add their daughter to the app. He entered California on Feb. 15, after his interview, while his wife and daughter remained in Mexico.
“I cried bitterly, like a child, in that moment,” Mr. Termulis said when he learned that his family would not be immediately joining him.
They were finally able to secure an appointment for March 8 and successfully crossed into the United States. But other migrants have been less fortunate, trying to secure appointments since January, Ms. Jozef said.
Recently, the app was updated to make available groups of appointments at the same time, so a family could potentially go together, another homeland security official said.
When asked about issues with the government app, like the problems with securing a picture and difficulty securing appointments, Mr. Mayorkas has said he is aware of them.
“There are, from time to time, issues with it, and we remediate very swiftly,” he said on Feb. 2. “We’re mindful of those and its impact on people’s ability to access the relief we extend.”
But, he said, thousands of people have had success.
Eileen Sullivan reported from Washington, and Steve Fisher reported from Reynosa, Mexico. Miriam Jordan contributed reporting from Los Angeles.
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