Last month, a young transgender woman from Central America applied for asylum in the US. Unlike thousands of others requesting asylum at the US-Mexico border, this person was especially fortunate. She had her birth certificate as well as a lawyer to represent her. She presented herself to Customs and Border Protection officers in San Ysidro, California, just across the border from Tijuana, and was put in detention, and eventually into protective custody. While detained, she turned over all her belongings to the border patrol. But when it came time to file the asylum paperwork, the woman's birth certificate was gone. “We run into these issues literally all the time,” says Allegra Love, an immigration attorney who is representing the woman and who says CBP officials couldn’t produce the document when her firm requested it.
This particular case is not unusual. When migrants are taken into detention, their cell phones, money, documents, and other belongings are taken away. In a system that Love describes as “catastrophically chaotic,” many migrants never see their phones or important documents again. A study by the American Immigration Council, a nonprofit group that advocates for immigrants, found that 40 percent of migrants who were detained in 2016 didn’t get back some or all of their belongings even after they were released.
But the transgender woman was prepared. Before crossing the border, she visited a legal clinic in Tijuana run by immigrant rights group Al Otro Lado. While there, she uploaded her birth certificate to a secure cloud-based digital locker. Her lawyers only had to request a copy. “Probably 20 minutes later, her documents were in my inbox,” says Love, who says the tool gives asylum seekers more control over their fates. “It not only tangibly strengthens the case, but it also makes the asylum seeker feel more confident and in control of what’s going on.”
The situation at the US-Mexico border is hard to fathom. Since October 2018, CBP officers have apprehended more than 760,000 people trying to cross the border, nearly double the number that were apprehended in the preceding 12 months. A large majority of people crossing the border are fleeing violence and extreme poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Many have valid asylum claims. But with a historically long backlog of some 945,000 cases in the immigration court system, those new asylum seekers will have to wait, on average, 713 days for their cases to be heard. As more migrants stream toward the border, advocacy organizations are turning to new tech tools to help migrants better navigate the harrowing journey north and the complex immigration system that awaits them in America.
The digital locker Love’s client used, known as the document safety tool, was created by the Innovation Law Lab, a nonprofit developing technology to help immigrants and human rights advocates. Law Lab also partnered with the Southern Poverty Law Center to start an Immigration Court Watch app that allows volunteers to record the details of immigration cases to ensure accountability and transparency in the court system. It’s BorderX program uses databases and other tools to build a nationwide network of lawyers and volunteers to advocate for migrants stuck in detention.
The document safety tool fills an important role, providing a backup when documents are lost, stolen, or damaged. When migrants come to a clinic for a legal consultation, they upload their documents and create a secure PIN that they can share with legal representatives or family members. So far the tool is only being used at a clinic run by Al Otro Lado in Tijuana, but documents in the system have been accessed more than 2,000 times and there are plans to expand the program to other clinics along the border.
Luis Guerra, who works with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, known as CLINIC, has been helping out at Al Otro Lado’s Tijuana offices for the past 10 months. He says he often sees migrants arrive with tattered birth certificates held together with sticky tape. Some have pictures of the documents stored on their cell phones. One 18-year-old came to the clinic while waiting to present himself at the border and enter his asylum claim. All his belongings were stored in his backpack, including his birth certificate, which he entered into the document safety tool at Al Otro Lado. He then spent months sleeping on the street, awaiting his turn. When the time finally came, his backpack—and the birth certificate—had been stolen. Without it, CBP wouldn’t let him cross. “He came to our office and we were able to print out his birth certificate for him, and the very next day the officials let him through,” says Guerra. “That individual probably wouldn’t be allowed to access asylum at all were it not for us being able to provide a copy of his birth certificate.”
Under international and American law, anyone has the right to seek asylum in another country if they face persecution based on their race, nationality, religion, political views, or membership in a specific group in their home country. Asylum seekers complete a 12-page application with detailed biographical information about themselves and the threats, harassment, and violence they fear or have experienced. Many attach additional evidence or documents, including birth certificates and photographic evidence of prior incidents, in hopes of persuading a judge that they face a credible threat and shouldn’t be sent back. Since earlier this year, the Trump administration has limited the number of people who can seek asylum along the southern border, forcing people like the 18-year-old mentioned above and more than 20,000 others, to wait in Mexico. There, advocates say the migrants remain in danger—stuck in border towns with high rates of violence, few resources, and little access to information.
Just uploading the documents is no guarantee that asylum seekers will win their case. “We can’t make promises to people. It’s unfair,” says Ian Philabaum, a program director at Immigration Law Lab. Of the nearly 1 million asylum cases waiting to be heard, about 74 percent are for people coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. Most of those people will go through their court hearings alone; there simply aren’t enough lawyers to handle the crush of cases.
Philabaum hopes that technology like the document safety tool can help migrants who don’t have a lawyer in two ways. First, it will give them a safe storage place for documents, somewhere better than a phone that can run out of battery or a backpack that can be stolen or lost. If they get stuck in detention and can’t access their documents, family members can get access and file the asylum paperwork.
Obtaining and arranging documents for the tool also helps migrants prepare to present their asylum cases, and put together contingency plans: what to do if something is lost, what happens if they are detained, who should represent them, and what papers that representative should file on their behalf. “It complements the conversation that’s being had about their legal case,” adds Philabaum. Law Lab can’t give everyone a lawyer, but the theory is that with a little more information, migrants will be able to take a more active role in what takes place.
For many migrants, the best way to stay informed is through their cell phones. “A cell phone is a literal lifeline for a person in transit,” says Philabaum. “Previously people used to think about money or shoes or blankets or some more basic needs. But the cell phone continues to grow, as it becomes your access point to whatever it is that you need.” For migrants fleeing violence and political corruption in Central America, cell phones are connections to loved ones, money, resources, and information. They use them to store important documents, directions, addresses, and phone numbers.
Migrants “are always looking for [a cell phone] signal,” says Monica Vazquez, who works for the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR. “A lot of their incomes go straight to having a phone,” she says, noting that many Central American migrants must buy new SIM cards or new phones because that’s cheaper than unlocking their old phones, which aren’t compatible in Mexico.
When they have a cell signal, migrants primarily use their phones to access WhatsApp and Facebook. In November 2017, UNHCR started El Jaguar, a Facebook page that compiles information from UN and Mexican agencies. “Information saves lives,” says the page, which includes posts about who qualifies as a refugee, how to claim asylum in Mexico and in the US, and where to find shelter and food. Right now, Vazquez says the page fields just over 100 messages every month.
The message count may understate the page’s impact. according to Vazquez: “Maybe we get one message, but we know that message actually translates maybe into eight people being informed” through informal, word-of-mouth networks. On average, each El Jaguar Facebook post is seen more than 700,000 times. El Jaguar discourages migrants from posting to the page so that gangs in their home countries won’t know where they are.
Similarly, the International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, has gone mobile with a WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger program that delivers health advice—how to avoid dehydration or cholera, for example—as well as maps that guide migrants to shelters. “We are not encouraging people to migrate,” says Jesus Serrano of the ICRC, who says the group is committed to providing basic humanitarian aid. ICRC estimates the program, which launched in April, has so far sent over 7,600 messages. As with El Jaguar, each message may reach many people.
In Guatemala, UNHCR is using vans to provide temporary cellular hotspots, covering areas with little or no service. In Mexico, the agency is funding an initiative to bring Wi-Fi to four communities near the Guatemalan border. The ICRC is helping connect more shelters. “It’s a right to get access to information,” adds Serrano.
The more time migrants spend waiting to learn if they’ll be granted asylum, the harder it is to hold onto those phones and keep them operational. Most of the Central American asylum seekers don’t have legal status in Mexico, so must work low-wage, under-the-counter jobs. “It is my experience that most individuals have a functioning smartphone of some sort, but whether or not they have the funds to make that smartphone work is another question,” says Guerra of CLINIC. “The majority of individuals don’t even have enough money to buy food day in and day out.”
That instability makes it especially difficult for Guerra and other advocates to keep in touch with migrants whose phone numbers change frequently, depending on when they have money for data. Sometimes, they will use a friend’s phone, but later get separated from that friend and have no way to tell anyone.
Without phones, migrants typically can’t get a lawyer to represent them. “I would be confident in saying that I know of fewer than 50 cases on the thousands of cases that I have seen in Tijuana that have representation,” says Guerra. “Those that have representation were able to get it because they did have a way to communicate.”
Asylum cases take hours to prepare. For many who are fleeing domestic and sexual violence, it can be difficult to recount what happened, let alone tell that story to a complete stranger. Under ideal circumstances, a lawyer would spend hours building trust with a client and preparing them to be in court. “You describe, in public, to a bunch of strangers, the worst thing that’s ever happened to you,” says Love, the immigration attorney, describing the immigration court process. Love says cross-examinations can be especially difficult for migrants who are recounting deeply traumatic moments in their lives.
Immigration Law Lab’s storage tool is helpful, but only up to a point. It can’t replicate having a trained legal representative advocating on your behalf and it can’t fully prepare an asylum seeker for what they’re going to face in court. Philabaum says in the face of such a colossal humanitarian crisis, there’s no simple solution: “There is no technological fix.”
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