LAREDO, Texas (AP) — The Biden administration has stopped scheduling appointments through mobile apps to admit asylum seekers at a Texas border crossing that connects to a notoriously dangerous Mexican city after activists warned U.S. authorities that migrants were being extorted there.

The US Customs and Border Protection did not provide any explanation for its decision to stop scheduling new appointments through the CBP One app for the Laredo, Texas crossing.

Several asylum seekers told The Associated Press that Mexican officials in Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Laredo, Texas, had threatened to detain them and make them miss their scheduled asylum appointments unless they paid for them. Humanitarian groups in Laredo say they had recently alerted CBP to the problems and that certain groups were controlling access to the international crossing on the Mexican side.

Immigrant advocates say the situation in Nuevo Laredo, which is plagued by cartel fighting and other problems, casts doubt on the government’s argument that Mexico is a safe place for the record number of people fleeing violence in Central America and other places.

Rafael Álvarez, 29, who fled Venezuela, said that after landing in Nuevo Laredo in early June, Mexican immigration authorities at the airport seized his travel documents, including a printout of the email confirming his appointment. with CBP One, and they demanded that he pay 1,000 Mexican dollars. pesos, around $57. He was detained with other migrants.

“They covertly told us: ‘They are going to put the money in this envelope and they are going to pass it to us,’” Álvarez said, recalling what officials told him and other migrants.

Officials, he said, threatened to hold them to cancel their appointments. Álvarez, whose appointment was the next day, said he refused to pay and was eventually released, but five Russians who were detained with him paid a total of 5,000 pesos, about $290. They were initially asked to shell out more than double that amount, but told officials they didn’t have that much, he said.

Álvarez said other Venezuelan friends who flew to Nuevo Laredo in late May also paid to have their documents returned.

Thousands of asylum seekers are stuck in Mexican border cities, waiting until they can get an appointment to seek refuge in the United States after being blocked during the COVID-19 pandemic by a public health restriction called Title 42 which rose last month.

Although the government opened some new avenues for immigration, the fate of many people is largely left to the CBP One app used to schedule an appointment at a port of entry.

The government said it would continue to open 1,250 daily appointments by reallocating slots for Laredo to the other seven crossings along the US-Mexico border. He promised to honor online citations issued for the Laredo crossing before the June 3 change. The government schedules appointments two weeks in advance.

CBP prioritizes people with an appointment on the application, though people can try to get admitted by going in person without one. Anyone who has an acute medical condition or is under immediate threat of kidnapping or death may also apply to be admitted in person.

Laredo was among the least crowded crossings for asylum appointments, seeing only a fraction of appointments compared to San Diego and Brownsville.

There have been widespread complaints by migrants. about being forced to pay bribes to Mexico’s immigration sector, where corruption it is deeply entrenched and sometimes works directly with smugglers.

Earlier this month, the Mexican newspaper El Universal published a video taken through a bus window showing a federal agent taking migrant bills and putting them in his pocket while checking passports in the state of Jalisco. , on the Pacific coast. The agency said it had suspended two of its agents there and does not tolerate violations of migrants’ rights.

The newspaper also obtained government documents through a freedom of information request showing that the agency had opened 119 investigations against officers between 2017 and 2023 for misconduct.

Rebecca Solloa of Catholic Charities in Laredo said her organization and others met with CBP officials in person and via Zoom to advise them that the migrants told them that groups in Nuevo Laredo control the bridge and are extorting migrants there, but she did not know who are they.

She said that CBP “obviously received some type of intelligence, or descriptions, or information from the migrants who were coming (about) what happened to them.”

“I’m kind of glad they did it,” she said, adding that the government’s actions might have happened because “this is happening too much here on this border.”

It was not clear if the problem was isolated to Nuevo Laredo, and if so, why.

Narsher Nuñez, 29, flew to Nuevo Laredo in early June with her 6-month-old son, husband and adult nephew after securing an appointment in Mexico City through the app. She said that she and her family were extorted at the airport.

The Venezuelan woman said that Mexican officials took her documents and demanded that they pay 1,500 pesos, or $86, to get them back. They were held for hours with a group of Chinese immigrants, she said. Her husband said that an official told them: “If I have a good heart, I will send you to Guatemala. But if you catch me in a bad mood, I’ll send you to Venezuela.”

They eventually paid up and were released, he said. The next day, Núñez and his family attended their appointment and were admitted to the United States.

“All the immigrants that were trapped there, they took money from us,” said Núñez, who for now is staying with his family in a shelter in Laredo.

The Department of Homeland Security said in an email to the AP that CBP One has been instrumental in creating a more efficient and orderly system at the border “while weeding out unscrupulous smugglers who profit from vulnerable migrants.”

Neither the US nor the Mexican government responded to AP questions about reports of extortion of migrants using the app.

The app was criticized for technological problems when it launched on January 12. The government has made improvements in recent weeks, but demand has far exceeded supply, causing many to consider cross the border illegally or give up.

The administration has said that anyone who does not use legal channels will be deported back to their homeland and barred from seeking asylum in the US for five years.


Watson reported from San Diego. Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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