The Mexican government is allowing any immigrant who enters the country from Guatemala to continue traveling to the United States border if they have obtained an appointment on the U.S. government’s CBP One phone app, the Washington Examiner has learned.
The move would seem to be in the interest of the United States. However, Mexican cartels are exploiting the app’s security and found a way to request unlimited appointments for anyone in the world — far beyond the app’s “northern Mexico” geofence.
“It’s further evidence as this administration continues to try to come up with a new security paradigm along that border that I don’t think they really understand it. They don’t understand the lengths and depths the cartels will continue to go to,” said Chad Wolf, former acting Department of Homeland Security secretary. “As the administration continues to put these ‘legal pathways’ into place, that’s music to the cartel’s ears.”
An extensive investigation that included a review of unclassified, internal DHS documents and communications revealed that the Mexican government’s National Immigration Institute earlier this summer ordered its immigration officials to turn away all non-Mexican citizens who do not have a CBP One app appointment, according to one of the documents. Officers set up checkpoints in the southern state of Chiapas and have conducted arrests at these encounters.
Cartels, though, have turned the app on its head and used Mexico’s policy to its advantage by overpowering the app and are raking in profits from any immigrant who wishes to enter Mexico. Once immigrants show up at the Guatemala-Mexico or in Chiapas, the INM will let them proceed.
“Mexico will certainly let people through if they have an appointment, they’re sort of counting that as a de facto transit visa,” said Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight for the liberal immigrant advocacy organization the Washington Office for Latin America. “It’s sabotage and they know very well that people can’t normally get an appointment unless they’re north of Mexico City.”
Cartels have been selling immigrants a service that provides them with an internet connection through a virtual private network. Rather than use a regular internet service provider in the user’s location, a VPN routes a device’s internet connection through a private service so that the app cannot tell if the person is in northern Mexico.
Josh Trevino, chief of intelligence and research for the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation think tank, said the operation has allowed the cartels to cash in, potentially with kickbacks to the Mexican government.
“The Mexican requirement is a cash cow. It’s a cash grab,” said Trevino. “The Mexicans — they’re not really partners, they’re neighbors.”
Smugglers openly advertise their VPN services in southern Mexico and on social media, according to a DHS intelligence document and advertisements reviewed by the Washington Examiner. Social media advertisements have been especially conducive to recruiting Haitians, Cubans, and Hondurans.
Immigrants outside Mexico have new hope to make the journey north after a two-month downturn in illegal immigration apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border in May and June as the Biden administration threatened more severe consequences for immigrants who enter the country illegally rather than through its app or other legal pathways.
The emergence of the VPNs may be a contributing factor for the 30% increase in border encounters by U.S. authorities in July, which the Washington Post reported this week had suddenly gone up since early May despite the summer historically being a slow time.
Since the Biden administration debuted the CBP One app in January, immigrants south of Mexico City had no reason to believe they would find a legal way to get into the U.S. if they crossed illegally.
The app’s addition of more appointment time slots per day in late spring was bad news for corporation-sized cartels who profit billions of dollars each month moving people and drugs over the border, charging anywhere from $3,000 to $50,000 depending on the distance. The app’s geofencing parameters complicated the cartels’ ability to get immigrants into Mexico and cut into their bottom line.
Cartels soon discovered the app was easily penetrable and lacked security measures to prevent people from using a VPN to schedule an appointment. It also meant that cartels could charge immigrants for an additional fee for the cost of a guaranteed ticket into Mexico, further enticing more people outside Mexico to travel to the U.S.
“Pinning the faith on a smartphone app is sort of like peak Beltway disconnect,” said Trevino. “This is a classic example of why the tactical solutions ultimately don’t work because there’s constantly workarounds to them.”
A DHS official who provided comment after the publication of this story said the app uses phone location and not IP addresses.
One DHS source with firsthand knowledge of how the department has handled the discovery said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and CBP Senior Official Performing the Duties of Commissioner Troy Miller expressed concern but have not put forth a plan to combat it.
CBP spokeswoman Erin Waters said in a statement to the Washington Examiner following publication, “Claims that the CBP One app has been hacked are categorically false. Criminal organizations and smugglers continue to prey on vulnerable migrants, lying to them and putting them in harm’s way. Here is the reality: The lawful and orderly pathways we have established have been bad for cartels and other criminal organizations seeking to exploit migrants.
“Importantly, the CBP One app requires a user’s device location services and GPS data to verify their location before booking and confirming an appointment,” she added.
Isacson argued that “CBP could fix this if they wanted by just having the app read the GPS reading on the phone and not the location of the server that it’s connected to.”
Waters maintained the agency was “continually monitoring and evaluating the application to ensure its functionality and guard against bad actors.”
Trevino said the Biden administration needs a strategic solution to the border crisis, not a tactical one.
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise’s (R-LA) office said the Washington Examiner investigation into “horrifying results of Biden’s open border policies” underscore why legislative action was needed.
“This is why House Republicans passed our Secure the Border Act earlier this year, which cracks down on cartels and the abuse of CBP One,” a spokeswoman for Scalise wrote in an email. “There is no excuse for the Senate to continue to block this legislation from receiving a vote, and they should pass it immediately.”