By Kirk Semple
July 28, 2019
MEXICO CITY — President Trump has made migration the defining issue in the relationship between his administration and the governments of Central America and Mexico.
He has pressed the region’s leaders to reduce the number of migrants heading north and crossing the southwest border of the United States, even going so far as to freeze hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid to Central America.
One of his goals has been to get those countries to absorb more asylum seekers. On Friday, Mr. Trump made a surprise announcement that the United States had signed an agreement with Guatemala that would require asylum seekers who travel through that country to first seek refuge there.
The deal represents a major shift from longstanding American policy and would be extraordinarily rare by international standards. Many details have not been disclosed, and critics in both the United States and Guatemala have threatened to go to court to try to derail it.
But if successfully put in place, the agreement could have profound effects on migrant flows in the hemisphere.
This is what we know about it.
How would the agreement function?
Every month, tens of thousands of migrants — from Latin America and around the world — have been making their way north through Central America in the hopes of crossing into the United States. An increasing number have sought sanctuary in the United States, overwhelming the American asylum system and infuriating Mr. Trump, who has tried to limit their ability to win American protection.
The American government’s latest tactic is the agreement with Guatemala.
Known as a “safe third country agreement,” the deal would make asylum seekers ineligible for protection in the United States if they had traveled through Guatemala and did not first apply for asylum there. Under the agreement, the American authorities would be allowed to return those migrants to Guatemala, relieving pressure on the American immigration system.
The arrangement would largely prevent people from Honduras and El Salvador, two of the main sources of migrants at the moment, from seeking American asylum. It would also block large numbers of asylum seekers from elsewhere in Latin America and around the world who travel by land to the United States via Guatemala. Guatemalan and Mexican asylum seekers, however, would not be affected.
Has this been done before?
Safe third country agreements are rare. The United States signed such a deal with Canada in 2002. The European Union has one with Turkey that allows asylum seekers who arrive at the Greek border to be returned to Turkey.
But it appears that no such agreement has been signed with a nation that is as ill-equipped as Guatemala to deal with asylum seekers and keep them safe, experts say. Though homicide rates there have fallen sharply in the last decade, the country remains among the deadliest in the world. Crime, impunity and corruption are rife, and critics argue that it is unable to meet the safety requirements demanded by the deal.
The State Department has issued alerts about the rampant violence and frail law-enforcement system in the country.
“Violent crime, such as armed robbery and murder, is common,” the State Department warns in its current travel advisory for Guatemala. “Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics trafficking, is widespread. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.”
Is everyone on board?
Trump administration officials have said that the agreement will go into effect in the next several weeks. But there are several significant obstacles in its way.
Opposition to the agreement is widespread in Guatemala, where the Constitutional Court ruled recently that the Guatemalan government needed congressional approval to make a safe third country deal with the United States. That ruling, which came amid negotiations between the Trump administration and the administration of the Guatemalan president, Jimmy Morales, prompted Mr. Trump to threaten the Central American nation with punitive tariffs, a travel ban and taxes on the remittances sent home by Guatemalan migrants in the United States.
On Friday, Mr. Morales seemed to be trying to skirt the court ruling by avoiding the use of the term “safe third country” in his statement on the deal. But the Trump administration did use the term, giving impetus to potential legal challenges in Guatemala.
There are also several steps the United States government must take before the agreement can be put into effect.
The Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security would have to certify that Guatemala has a “full and fair” asylum system, and is able to protect asylum seekers from other countries if the United States sends them there.
The logistics of the plan are also still being determined. What would be the process for determining that a migrant should be returned to Guatemala? How many migrants could be sent back each week? How would they be transported?
A draft of the plan circulating among American officials suggests that initially, a limited number of migrants would be sent to Guatemala each week — perhaps several hundred in a month. That would be a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands that have been seeking asylum each month at the border with Mexico.
A delay in putting the agreement into effect, or a limiting of its scope, would almost certainly disappoint Mr. Trump. Still, administration officials hope that any migrant returns, no matter how small in number, would serve as a deterrent to others contemplating making the trip to the United States.
Would the deal work?
To answer this question, let’s look at some numbers.
Last year, about 62,000 people from El Salvador and Honduras petitioned for asylum in the United States, according to the United Nations. Most of them entered the country through the southwest border.
By comparison, a total of 257 people sought asylum in Guatemala.
The Migration Policy Institute in Washington called the Guatemalan asylum system “embryonic.” Should the deal stand, the possible surge in applications would force Guatemala to set up a robust asylum processing system in a very short period of time.
Beyond the particulars of Guatemala’s case, safe third country agreements have had mixed success and “have generally proven difficult to enforce for a mix of practical and legal reasons,” the Migration Policy Institute said in a commentary. Such challenges have included proving that the asylum seeker transited the safe country in the first place.
In the three years following the 2016 signing of the agreement between the European Union and Turkey, about 2,400 people were returned from Greece to Turkey out of about 145,600 arrivals in Greece, the institute said.
But an even bigger question about the new United States-Guatemala agreement is whether the Guatemalan authorities could honor the promise of keeping asylum seekers safe. And few are betting on that.