In a move that advocates describe as “covert” and “abrupt,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced last month it is transitioning to a new online system that “increases convenience” for those seeking to bond immigrants out of detention. There’s one problem: The system doesn’t work.
ICE’s Cash Electronic Bonds Online—called CeBONDS for short—is the latest attempt under the Biden administration to modernize immigration processes through digital technology. However, much of what’s being rolled out by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees federal immigration agencies, is not only riddled with serious flaws, but is largely inaccessible to the immigrants now forced to rely on these new, web-based systems.
According to ICE, CeBONDS allows users to verify bond information, post bonds, and receive notifications for bonds using what appears to be an easy-to-navigate system. The obligor, the person or entity posting the bond, simply creates a CeBONDS account and fills out information for themselves and the person being bonded out of detention. The obligor then uploads identity documents and submits the bond payment request. Once ICE approves the bond for payment, the obligor fills out and signs the online bond contract before paying the bond via an electronic funds transfer or by using Fedwire, operated by the Federal Reserve Bank. After uploading the bond payment receipt to CeBONDS and clicking submit, ICE processes the information. If all information was submitted properly, ICE releases the person from detention.
Beginning June 1, ICE is eliminating the option to pay bonds in-person. CeBONDS will be the only option to pay immigration bonds, a development that members of community-led bond funds told Prism will be “catastrophic.” Fund members who had early access to CeBONDS say the new system creates tremendous barriers because it actually isn’t automated—and it requires a level of access and privilege families navigating the immigration system often don’t have.
“I don’t know why it’s not working”
Ana María Rivera-Forastieri is the migrant justice organizing director of the Community Justice Exchange (CJE), an abolitionist organization that supports community organizations experimenting with different tactics to contest the criminal legal and immigration systems. As part of this work, CJE oversees The National Bail Fund Network, a nationwide group of more than 90 community-led bail and bond funds that free people from detention centers and prisons nationwide. Rivera-Forastieri said that she and other advocates began to hear “whispers” in December 2022 that a new system was in the works. In conversations with DHS’ Office of Partnerships and Engagement and Office of Financial Management, she and other advocates were told there was no information to share about a new system.
Months later, Rivera-Forastieri and others heard from a fund member that an ICE agent said the agency was transitioning to an online system the following week. On April 11, Rivera-Forastieri said her organization immediately contacted Francey Lim Youngberg, the assistant director of ICE’s Office of Partnership and Engagement. During a short meeting the following morning on April 12, Lim Youngberg said the system was not launching the following week and that CeBONDS needed to be “stress tested”—presumably with the help of bail funds. The ICE official also reportedly said the agency was planning a “community engagement session” before the system officially launched.
Later on April 12, a member of a fund went to pay an immigration bond in person and saw a poster in the ICE office that announced a June 1 date for CeBONDS to replace in-person bond payments. CeBONDS publicly launched on April 20, and ICE scheduled the community engagement meeting with bond funds for just three days prior, giving funds very little time to familiarize themselves with the system before it replaced in-person bond payments on June 1.
Rivera-Forastieri said that despite ICE’s claim that CeBONDS is a faster, more efficient process, it’s actually ICE’s oversight of the system that keeps bonds from being processed.
“This isn’t actually an automated system,” Rivera-Forastieri explained. “There are ICE officials at every stage of the way verifying the information you’re putting in and either approving it or not. People in our network have been mostly unsuccessful using the system because of glitches, and there are now very significant delays in being able to post bonds. Everything we feared with this being rushed out is now a reality.”
Prism spoke to four people who help pay bonds across the U.S. as part of The National Bail Fund Network, most of whom ICE granted early access to help “troubleshoot” issues before the system went public on April 20. As of May 5, none had been successful at bonding a person out of detention.
This includes Laurel Klafehn and Jessica Burnett, who tested the system for nearly two weeks from Denver, where they are working on relaunching a bond fund to assist families in getting their loved ones out of the nearby Aurora Detention Center.
“We spent hours attempting to work through the new system through the multiple steps it requires, and we couldn’t get it to work—and this was with us having a personal, direct line to the head of the new bond unit that we could call every time we ran into an issue,” Burnett said. “We would call them, and they would say, ‘I’m looking at my computer, I’m looking at the whole system, and I don’t know why it’s not working. I don’t know what’s going wrong.’”
During Klafehn and Burnett’s first attempt to bond someone out, they couldn’t get past CeBONDS’ first step, which required providing their information as obligors and the information of the person they were trying to bond out in South Texas. The message they received for days was that ICE was reviewing their bond submission, something ICE’s own website says should take about an hour or two. When they spoke to ICE leadership in Washington, D.C., and ICE authorities in South Texas, both offices said the bond was approved to be paid—information that was not being conveyed to Klafehn and Burnett through the CeBONDS website.
“They could not figure out what the issue was, so the office in D.C. brought in a developer so they could look at the code,” Klafehn explained.
Complicating matters further, CeBONDS’ bond posting hours are between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. in the time zone where the person is detained. Klafehn and Burnett spent hours on a Friday trying to bond the person out of South Texas, but because of glitches in the system, they missed the 3 p.m. deadline.
“We didn’t want the person to have to spend another weekend in detention because of a glitch,” Burnett said. “Finally, the head of ICE’s bond unit suggested that if we really wanted to get the person out, we should just have someone pay the bond in person. This is the head ICE officer of the bond management unit—the one who is asking us to test his system out—and his only solution was something that ICE isn’t going to allow anymore [starting June 1].”
In a different, multi-day attempt to bond someone out of detention using CeBONDS, Burnett said she got through to the final stage—further than she’d ever made it before. She was actually able to pay the bond electronically, and she was on the last step of uploading the receipt. When she clicked submit for the final review, the “dreaded spinning wheel” appeared on her screen, indicating the application was having trouble responding. Burnett didn’t want to click out of the screen for fear that she’d have to start the entire multi-day process over. The wheel spun for hours, and she missed the 3 p.m. bond posting deadline.
Bond funds also have serious concerns about how inaccessible CeBONDS is to immigrant communities—including immigrants who are disabled. Funds recently used screen readers to assess the system’s accessibility and found that even signing up for a CeBONDS account would be “virtually impossible” for blind and low-vision community members, Rivera-Forastieri said.
CeBONDS is also only available in English. According to Rivera-Forastieri, who’s attended meetings with ICE about the new system, the agency currently has no plans to make the system available in other languages. The system also requires access to a scanner and is clearly intended to be used on a laptop or desktop computer, as it requires scans of personal identifying information and other documentation in PDF format, some of which might need to be bundled and uploaded together as a single form.
Autumn Gonzalez, a member of California’s NorCal Resist, which is part of The National Bail Fund Network, told Prism that an online system should make things more accessible, but CeBONDS does the opposite. Many of the families NorCal Resist organizes with and on behalf of don’t have laptops or desktop computers; they have inexpensive prepaid phones that rely on wifi access.
“If I can’t post a bond sitting here on my nice laptop, I doubt they can do it on their phones with shaky wifi,” Gonzalez said. “And I’m an attorney who speaks English and is proficient at using the internet and navigating complicated systems.”
Gonzalez, whose fund has successfully paid more than 400 bonds, said her experience with CeBONDS has been “beyond frustrating.” Each time she’s tried to pay a bond using the system, the information she provides is rejected. Refreshing the system leads to having to input the same information over again, restarting the same multi-day process. Her emails to ICE’s new CeBONDS help desk sometimes go unanswered.
As more evidence that the system isn’t actually automated but rather overseen by ICE employees, Gonzalez said that getting through one stage of the CeBONDS process often leads to a series of correspondence with ICE.
“And they’re asking for information no one has ever asked me for before when paying a bond, like a letter saying I’m approved to post bond for NorCal Resist. They even asked me to send a utility bill. When I asked why, ICE said it’s because people sometimes lie about their address,” Gonzalez said.
The attorney was also made to upload a scan of her driver’s license, even though she wasn’t posting bond as an individual but as NorCal Resist, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. During another attempt to pay a bond using CeBONDS, ICE told Gonzalez the names of three people and said they were the only ones allowed to post bond for the person she was trying to get released. They were people she’d never heard of.
“Usually, anyone can be the obligor. That’s the whole premise of a bail bondsman: it’s hiring an outside person or company to pay the bond. I’ve just never encountered these kinds of issues before,” Gonzalez said.
Serious design flaws, serious consequences
CeBONDS’ many design flaws and glitches have serious consequences for immigrants in detention. A majority of the nearly 25,000 immigrants currently detained by ICE are not eligible for bond. Those granted an immigration bond by a judge are often asylum-seekers funneled into ICE custody after being apprehended by Customs and Border Protection, meaning they fled their home countries with little more than the clothes on their backs. Immigration bonds begin at $1,500 and go up from there, though Rivera-Forastieri said that last year the National Bail Fund Network’s Rapid Response Coordination Program mostly encountered bonds between $7,000 and $15,000.
Paying an immigration bond in a timely manner is literally a matter of life or death. In the time it takes ICE to figure out a CeBONDS glitch, asylum-seekers may be ordered removed to the same countries they fled. The system’s rampant tech issues are already leading to prolonged detention.
Klafehn told Prism ICE agents have personally expressed to her in phone calls their own concerns about CeBONDS, especially regarding how payments are now processed. One agent explained that bond payments go through a third-party financial processor as part of the new system. The agent noted that the federal immigration agency can’t even confirm receipt of the money until it goes through these internal checks, which obligors have virtually no information about—even as they are expected to funnel thousands of dollars in bond payments through CeBONDS.
“These ‘bond payments’ aren’t just payments. There’s a person at the other end of this who is detained and waiting to get out. We might have the money in our account to pay for their bond, and yet, because of these internal systems, we have to wait several business days to even get the information we need so that a person can be released from detention,” Klafehn said.
Because CeBONDS has drastically extended the time it takes to pay a bond, the timeline of a person’s release is now even murkier—creating more challenges for bond funds that coordinate post-release support and families who must drive hours or days to pick a loved one up from a remote, rural detention center. There are also ways in which CeBONDS is threatening the trust that bond funds have worked hard to establish in the immigrant communities they serve.
“One of my colleagues shared a heartbreaking story with me about a family she was helping to pay a bond,” Rivera-Forastieri said. “Because there were several days of delays in being able to process the bond, the family started to believe people in the bond fund were scammers trying to defraud them of the money they paid to get their loved one out of detention. It’s painful to know that the credibility we have built over the years with communities and families is being impacted by this system that just isn’t working.”
The main demand bond funds have for DHS is that in-person payments should remain—regardless of the implementation of CeBONDS and whether ICE ultimately fixes all of the technical problems. Rivera-Forastieri said this is because CeBONDS will always only be “available to a selected few and was enacted to erect barriers and prevent people from directly interacting with DHS staff.”
Prism repeatedly reached out to ICE with questions about the rollout of CeBONDS and about the many issues bail funds are experiencing using the new system. The agency did not respond by publication time.
Quasi-lottery for asylum
The devastation wrought by DHS’ failing technology will only worsen in the coming months as migrants reap the consequences of the Biden administration’s failed promise to create a “safe, orderly, and humane” processing system. Like countless administrations that preceded his, President Joe Biden has instead prioritized exclusion, deterrence, and enforcement strategies that do not accomplish their intended goal of curbing migration.
Immigration enforcement and detention numbers are soon expected to increase dramatically with the end of Title 42. A minute before midnight on May 11, the U.S. will discontinue the use of the obscure public health measure implemented by the Trump administration at the start of the pandemic. Over the last three years, Title 42 has enabled federal immigration authorities to expel millions of migrants from the U.S. without first allowing asylum-seekers to exercise their right to request protection, which is in violation of domestic and international law.
Under the Biden administration, an increase in immigration enforcement now effectively translates to more people whose freedom and safety rely on flawed technology like CeBONDS and CBP One, a smartphone app rife with serious problems that in January became the only way for people to obtain permission to present at a port of entry to request asylum.
For those who have fled their home countries with little or no money, enduring long and dangerous journeys on foot, this effectively means that their strongest chance of getting an appointment to start the years-long asylum process in a system with a mounting backlog of cases requires them first to purchase a smartphone that has the most up-to-date software that supports the CBP One app. Then, of course, they have to somehow find a strong wifi signal—and all of this assumes they are in Central or Northern Mexico, the only regions where they can request an appointment, and that they can read and write and are proficient at using the internet.
CBP One relies on GPS tracking and biometric likeness and liveness technology, which is similar to facial recognition technology. As the American Immigration Council’s senior staff attorney Raul Pinto noted, CBP One’s reliance on these systems subjects asylum-seekers to the “inherent risks and flaws of these technologies.” CBP One’s “flaws” are longstanding and well established.
Since the app was first rolled out in 2020, asylum-seekers have reported getting repeated error messages when trying to obtain an asylum appointment. There is also racial bias baked into the technology. CBP One was initially only available in English and Spanish, excluding Haitian Creole speakers, many of whom The Guardian reported could not successfully request asylum appointments because CBP One’s likeness and liveness technology wasn’t able to map the features of people with darker skin. This meant migrants with darker skin could not upload their photos, a requirement as part of requesting an appointment. Over time, other serious problems have emerged.
Not only were the faces of young children not registering on the app, but Pinto told Prism that families were being timed out of CBP One because they couldn’t register each family member quickly enough. These are just some of the insurmountable challenges that have pushed some desperate parents to consider sending their children to ports of entry alone because unaccompanied children are processed faster than adults and families.
Part of the problem may be that CBP One was not originally developed to process asylum-seekers. Pinto filed a Freedom of Information Act request with CBP in 2021 to learn more about the app’s evolution. Ultimately, the American Immigration Council had to sue the federal agency to obtain the records, which revealed officials knew from CBP One’s inception that the app had “limited capabilities” and was intended for tasks like scheduling appointments for the inspection of perishable cargo. Pinto also found that CBP’s rapid implementation of some of the app’s functions as part of the asylum system created confusion among government officials.
Pinto said that both CeBONDS and CBP One are clear efforts by the Biden administration to make things easier and to modernize the immigration system, but serious issues stand in the way of the technology being successful. Namely, the administration rolls out the technology before it’s ready and then does not account for its inaccessibility before making these apps and new online systems the only option available. The new tech rolled out under the Biden administration also has serious privacy concerns. CBP has experienced major data breaches, and last year, a mistake made by ICE could have turned deadly. The agency accidentally made public the identities of more than 6,000 asylum-seekers—people who are actively fleeing persecution, extortion, and death threats in their home countries.
“It’s a very laudable effort to inject technology and try to make things more expedient, but in order for things to work efficiently, the technology has to work,” Pinto said. “If there are serious glitches, there needs to be an alternative way for people to still access these very important processes.”
According to one attorney at the Southern border who represents asylum-seekers, CBP officials have said that once Title 42 ends, those who present at a port of entry without having first made an appointment using CBP One will be accepted. However, they will be funneled into a separate queue until the agency has the capacity to process them. In effect, this is a return to the unlawful system of metering that was utilized before Title 42 was implemented and is the subject of a class-action lawsuit filed against the government.
A trend under the Biden administration is to announce the use of new systems and features with almost no lead time, giving impacted communities and advocates almost no advanced warning to prepare for significant changes. As one recent example, CBP announced new changes to the CBP One app on May 5, just days before chaos is expected to unfold inside federal immigration agencies as Title 42 comes to a close May 11.
The changes seem promising—and attorneys who spoke to Prism on background said they will result in an improved system. According to CBP, the app will now make appointments available for 23 hours each day instead of at a designated time, allowing for more flexibility and greater access to the scheduling system. CBP will also increase the number of appointments available to approximately 1,000 each day and will prioritize people who have waited for appointments the longest.
Still—as Amnesty International argues—the required use of the CBP One app to schedule a time to arrive at participating ports of entry to present an asylum claim violates the right to seek asylum. There are also new details about how the app will operate that CBP has failed to preemptively share with impacted communities—details that raise larger, ethical, and legal questions.
It’s not really CBP that will prioritize people for appointments as Title 42 comes to end. According to attorneys who’ve met with CBP officials and comments made by government officials at a recent stakeholders call organized by CBP last week, an algorithm will determine who gets an appointment through the app.
The problem with algorithms is that they can amplify harmful biases, lead to discriminatory decisions, and reinforce inequalities. CBP One’s use of an algorithm also means asylum-seekers—including those who have been waylaid in Mexico for years—will be subject to a quasi-lottery for asylum. Worse yet, many won’t even know it’s happening.
Prism reached out to CBP to confirm the use of an algorithm to determine which asylum-seekers will obtain appointments. The agency did not respond by publication time.