On Friday afternoon, the US and Guatemala signed an agreement that will direct Central American migrants who pass through Guatemala hoping to seek asylum in the United States to first apply for protection in Guatemala instead. Those who travel to the US without applying for asylum in Guatemala could be removed by US border officials to that country.
According to a new rule implemented by the Trump administration earlier this month, people seeking asylum at the US border will be turned away if they passed through another safe country — a “safe third country,” as they are called — before reaching the United States.
The deal signed Friday by Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart and Trump, alongside acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, technically designates Guatemala as such a safe third country.
The move is expected to curb migration from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the Central American countries from which the bulk of asylum-seekers at the US border originate.
The signing ceremony was announced on Twitter, taking politicians and immigration activists alike by surprise, according to the New York Times.
The agreement comes after months of talks, a cancelled visit to Washington from Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales, and threats from the Trump administration of tariffs if an agreement was not reached.
Trump celebrated the treaty as a victory on Friday, calling it a “landmark agreement” that will “put the coyotes and smugglers out of business.”
Morales was less optimistic, saying on social media on Friday that the deal will help Guatemala to escape “drastic sanctions.”
Many details of the agreement, which would last for two years, remain murky. It does not apply to “unaccompanied minors” — children who arrive alone to the border — or to Guatemalans seeking asylum. The White House has not yet released its own version of the agreement.
The new policy would, “with few exceptions, make it extraordinarily difficult for anyone not coming from Mexico or on a plane to be eligible for asylum in the US,” Vox’s Jen Kirby has reported. And it has been controversial since talks between the US and Guatemala began earlier this summer.
Human rights groups have pointed out that Guatemala has similar levels of gang-related violence as its neighbors; MS-13 and other gangs operate across all three countries. Migrants from these three countries have contributed to the spike in border crossings in the last year, with nearly 150,000 asylum-seeking families arriving from Guatemala since October 2018, according to US Customs and Border Protection figures.
By contrast, 262 people applied for asylum in Guatemala between January and November 2018, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. A large increase in that number could strain local resources, refugee experts say.
“Guatemala is in no way safe for refugees and asylum seekers, and all the strong-arming in the world won’t make it so,” said Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, in a statement. “This agreement also violates US law and will put some of the most vulnerable people in Central America in grave danger.”
The prospect of such a treaty faced strong opposition from within Guatemala. The country’s highest court granted injunctions three times to stop its government from signing an agreement without congressional approval. Earlier this month, Morales, Guatemala’s president, postponed a scheduled visit to Washington amidst the outcry.
“The government of the republic reiterates that at no point it considers signing an agreement to convert Guatemala into a safe third country,” the government said at the time.
Following that statement, Trump began to ramp up public threats of tariffs against the Central American nation, already one of the continent’s poorest countries. He also threatened to tax remittances — money that immigrants send home to family members — and to ban travel out of the country.