Under the new format, migrants apply directly to an agency online, and government officials will determine who is allowed in.

US President Biden visited the US-Mexico border this week prior to the launch of the online appointment system.
US President Biden visited the US-Mexico border this week prior to the launch of the online appointment system. (AFP)

The Biden administration has launched an online appointment system as the only way for migrants to get exceptions from pandemic-era limits on asylum - the US government's latest major step in eight days to overhaul border enforcement.

US Customs and Border Protection on Thursday began allowing migrants to make appointments up to two weeks out using its website and through CBPOne, a mobile app that the agency has used in limited ways since 2020. 

CBPOne is replacing an opaque, bewildering patchwork of exemptions to a public health order known as Title 42, under which the government has denied migrants' US and international rights to claim asylum since March 2020.

Until now, CBP has arranged exemptions through advocates, churches, attorneys and migrant shelters, without publicly identifying them or saying how many slots were available. 

The advocates have chosen who gets in, with CBP having final say.

Under the new system, migrants apply directly to the agency, and a government official will determine who gets in. 

Exemptions for Title 42 are meant to go to the most vulnerable migrants.

Thursday's rollout is separate from measures announced last week to expel migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to Mexico under Title 42 and — at the same time — allow up to 30,000 migrants from those four countries to be admitted to the United States every month under humanitarian parole for two years if they apply online, pay their airfare and provide a financial sponsor.

READ MORE: Biden visits US-Mexico border as immigration issue takes centre stage

Advocates caught off-guard

While the administration previously signalled that it would introduce CBPOne for people seeking asylum at land border crossings with Mexico, the speed of change caught advocates off-guard.

“Utter and complete confusion,” said Priscilla Orta, an attorney at Lawyers For Good Government's Project Corazon in Texas' Rio Grande Valley.

US officials told advocates Friday they expected the app to be ready in a month, Orta said. 

Then on Monday, advocates were informed the rollout had been moved up to this week.

Under Title 42, the US has expelled migrants 2.5 million times since March 2020 on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19. 

To qualify for an exemption under CBPOne, migrants must have a physical or mental illness, disability, pregnancy, lack housing, face a threat of harm, or must be under 21 years old or over 70.

The government’s app is currently available only in English and Spanish and requires access to a smartphone, email and reliable internet.

US Representative Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, a Florida Democrat and Haitian American, expressed concern that the app wasn't available in Haiti's primary languages, Creole and French. Officials say a Creole version will be added soon.

READ MORE: Migrants fear new rules as Biden prepares to visit US-Mexico border

Source: AP