Asylum Deal With Guatemala Is Contentious, Despite U.S. Assurances

GUATEMALA CITY — One week after reaching a deal that would force Guatemala to absorb Central American migrants seeking asylum in the United States, the head of the Department of Homeland Security assured Guatemalan officials that the United States would invest in the country and try to sign similar agreements with at least five other nations in the region.

The contentious deal with Guatemala, known as a “safe third agreement,” would make migrants ineligible for protection in the United States if they traveled by land through Guatemala and did not first apply for asylum there. This would deny protections to families from Honduras and El Salvador that have flocked to the United States border in record numbers this year.

Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, told government officials and business leaders in Guatemala in a series of meetings on Wednesday and Thursday that the United States was lobbying Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama and Brazil to agree to deals similar to the one President Trump signed with the Guatemalan minister of interior last Friday.

“We do think this is a regional responsibility and a regional solution and we can’t rely on any single partner or any single initiative to address this crisis,” Mr. McAleenan said in an interview.

It’s unclear how close the United States is to signing deals with the additional countries and what the details of such agreements would be. Such pacts would most likely curb thousands of additional migrants from obtaining protections at the southwest border.

In the deal with Guatemala, migrants crossing the United States border will still be detained in a Border Patrol facility and interviewed by an immigration officer who will analyze information shared by Central American countries to determine if they passed through Guatemala.

If the migrants claim to be afraid of being returned to Guatemala, they will be interviewed by an asylum officer who will determine whether the migrant meets the high bar of a fear of persecution or torture if returned to Guatemala, according to American officials.

If a migrant doesn’t pass the assessment, he or she will be given the choice of returning to Guatemala or their home country.

Mr. McAleenan said that during the initial phase of the policy, it would be single men who are returned, followed by single women and subsequently families.

A draft of the plan circulating among American officials suggests that in the beginning, only a limited number of migrants would be sent to Guatemala each week — perhaps several hundred in a month.

The deal would focus on curbing migration from Honduras and El Salvador but leave open the opportunity to return migrants from other nations.

“The agreement does not expressly limit nationalities,” Mr. McAleenan said.

The agreement was signed after President Trump threatened Guatemala with tariffs but before the two governments completed the implementation details.

The deal has led to public backlash both within Guatemala and the United States, with politicians and rights advocates saying the Trump administration would be returning vulnerable families not to a safe third country but to one struggling with gang violence, poverty and corruption.

There are multiple barriers standing in the way of the deal’s implementation, which is set for an unspecified date this month.

Critics in both countries have vowed to challenge it in court, and Guatemala’s Constitutional Court has already ruled that lawmakers must approve the deal, which could increase applications for asylum in the country from a few hundred a year to tens of thousands.

Critics have also questioned why the Trump administration would sign a deal with so many details remaining to be worked out with a Guatemalan administration that is set to leave office in January.

During his trip, Mr. McAleenan met with one of the leading presidential candidates, Sandra Torres, who will compete in elections on Aug. 11. Ms. Torres had opposed any safe-third-country agreement when it first appeared that the current administration, led by President Jimmy Morales, was preparing to sign one.

“This lack of information and the mishandling of this presentation has created even more fuel to intense divisions within Guatemala society,” Eduardo Stein, a former vice president of Guatemala, told Mr. McAleenan in a meeting on Wednesday. He said the rollout had “produced an even more intense fight among the different sectors who are blaming each other for what has happened.”

Mr. McAleenan has said the deal is needed to deter migrants without valid asylum claims from journeying to the United States border. He has presided over a surge of migrants crossing at the border, including the highest monthly total taken into custody in 13 years, in May.

Mr. Trump has also told his advisers that he sees the border situation as evidence of failing to fulfill a campaign promise to prevent dangerous immigrants from entering the country.

The deal does not apply to Guatemalans who request asylum in the United States.

In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, 116,808 migrants apprehended at the southwest border were from Guatemala, 77,128 were from Honduras and 31,636 were from El Salvador.

Representative Norma Torres, Democrat of California, said the agreement would only push migrants to take a more dangerous route on rafts and boats around Guatemala to the United States.

“Hundreds more will be exposed to elements where they will die,” Ms. Torres said.

Mr. McAleenan said he doesn’t believe migrants will risk that route because many are fleeing for economic reasons and don’t have “valid asylum claims.” He also told Guatemalan officials that he believes many of the Honduran and Salvadoran migrants would choose to return home as opposed to seek asylum in Guatemala.

Mr. McAleenan sought to assure Guatemalan officials that the United States would not begin by immediately sending back hundreds of thousands of migrants. He declined to provide an estimated number of migrants that would be returned to Guatemala as the policy is implemented this month.

Ms. Torres, originally from Guatemala, said Guatemala’s asylum agency, with fewer than 10 employees, wouldn’t be able to handle the influx of any sizable number of migrants.

The United States, with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, would invest in Guatemala’s asylum system and the construction of facilities to house the incoming migrants, Mr. McAleenan said.

The Trump administration would also restore State Department aid to the country, which President Trump cut earlier this year, once the deal is implemented and “effective,” Mr. McAleenan said.

The Trump administration plans to deliver $40 million to the United Nations refugee agency for facilities, transport and care of migrants in Guatemala, according to American government officials.

But it remains unclear whether the agency will support the agreement.

Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, previously criticized a similar policy the Trump administration announced this year that would deny asylum to migrants who failed to apply for protections in at least one country they passed through.

Mr. Grandi said that proposal would put “vulnerable families at risk.” A spokeswoman for the agency didn’t respond to requests for comment on the agreement between Guatemala and the United States. A meeting between Mr. McAleenan and officials from the United Nations agency was canceled on Wednesday but may take place Friday, U.S. government officials said.

The acting secretary told Guatemalan officials the United States would work with American companies to “double or triple” the more than 5,000 temporary agricultural visas issued each year.

Hugo Maúl, an economist in Guatemala, warned Mr. McAleenan that he should hesitate before celebrating a deal that hasn’t yet been implemented.

“You guys, Americans, you are not as romantic and idealistic as we Latinos,” Mr. Maúl said, sitting across from Mr. McAleenan at a meeting in the home of the United States Ambassador to Guatemala. “Just having a paper signed doesn’t mean anything south of the border.”

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