Data Without Borders: How Tech and Data Guide Asylum Seekers at the Southern Border

Ana Ortega-Villegas

“I’m heading to the Southern Border!” 

Every time I text my loved one these words, I receive a flurry of responses ranging from concerns for my safety and well-being to curiosity about my experiences. Many express their gratitude for my positive contribution to an ongoing humanitarian crisis, although it may be small in the grand scheme of things.

In the past, my visits to the U.S. / Mexico border focused on documenting the hardships faced by asylum seekers and exposing the inhumane and ineffective policies that exacerbate their suffering. 

When I joined Mobile Pathways a year ago, my goal was simple: pause, prioritize self-care, and take a break from being on the frontlines of a humanitarian crisis. Although I value my trips to the border, they took a toll on me. 

However, the longer I was away from the Southern Border, the more I felt a desire to go back.

My latest trip marked a significant shift in focus. This time, my mission was different. Instead of documenting harm, I wanted to introduce Asylum Navigator, gather feedback from asylum seekers, and spend time getting to know the people staying at the shelter. 

Before even stepping into the shelter in Reynosa, the dire conditions, safety concerns, and the palpable uncertainty that asylum seekers face became evident. They are stuck in an agonizing wait for a CBP One appointment, the only avenue for seeking protection at the border under new immigration policies.

Introducing Asylum Navigator at the shelter was an incredibly heartwarming and moving experience. Although some were a bit intimidated, people were genuinely excited about it.

Everyone in the shelter used the dashboard to filter cases by nationality, court venue, and the city where they hoped to start their new lives in the U.S. The Asylum Navigator provided hope for asylum seekers, offering a glimpse of a brighter future where they didn’t have to live in constant fear.

Ana at Casa Lulu in Reynosa, Mexico. Photo By Dennis Welsh.

Asylum Navigator gives people seeking asylum a realistic outlook of what their chances of securing asylum may look like. Our goal is to help people make informed decisions and feel more prepared for the adversarial legal journey ahead.

Seeing people use the dashboards also made me think about my colleagues. I feel so proud of what our team has accomplished. We went from a very messy dataset to a user-friendly dashboard. Using the dashboard takes less than a minute. In that brief time, we divert people from their stressful situations and introduce technology that aids in future planning. Despite the dishearteningly low grant rates, of as low as 2% for Haitians in certain court venues, individuals at the shelter found this information to be valuable. Upon seeing the grant rates, asylum seekers realized the importance of preparing to defend their cases. The individuals I conversed with are eager to seek asylum and present their cases in court; they simply require accurate information to get fair access to justice.

While at the shelter, I met a woman in the kitchen, preparing lunch for all the guests. She had fled her home country with her husband. The couple was separated, and her husband was processed into the U.S. while she still awaited her CBP One appointment. Her concern for her husband’s immigration case outweighed her situation. She showed me photos of the legal documents provided to her husband and wanted to know what they meant. 

I pointed out her husband's Alien Number ("A-Number") and suggested they both memorize it. An A number is a unique number assigned to any person with a pending immigration matter in the U.S. With her husband's consent, we used Asylum Navigator to find out who the judge assigned to his case was, as well as the location of the court and the date of his hearing.   

Ana at Casa Lulu in Reynosa, Mexico. Photo By Dennis Welsh.

She dreaded the thought of returning to South Texas for his hearing. However, a wave of relief washed over her when she realized the venue was in their city, sparing them a grueling journey they couldn't afford. While the privileged could access all this information effortlessly with a click, those like her, stranded at the border, isolated from loved ones, and lacking basic resources face immense challenges in obtaining information that would unlock fair access to justice.

She messaged her husband with the good news, and her relief was palpable.  

At that moment, I could envision a different reality from the current situation of violence, discrimination, corruption, family separation, and suffering at the Southern Border. I brought our team's innovative work to the forefront, observing people eagerly engage with and appreciate our innovative tech tools for immigration justice, like Asylum Navigator. I shared these thoughts with my team, who embraced these small tokens of gratitude. These gestures will eventually lead to significant changes, guaranteeing fair access to justice for all asylum seekers. I hope I can soon make another trip to the border, perhaps even bring some of my colleagues along.