Joined by Interior Minister of Guatemala Enrique Degenhart, President Trump’s announcement comes just two weeks after the administration issued a new third country asylum policy requiring those seeking asylum who first pass through a third country prior to entering the U.S. to initially apply for refugee status in that country, with exceptions for individuals who first traveled through “safe third countries.”
Under the terms of the agreement on Friday, those who pass through Guatemala while traveling to the U.S. and fail to first apply for asylum in Guatemala, are ineligible for protection in the United States. Additionally, the agreement allows asylum-seekers to be sent back to Guatemala for processing, as opposed to being sent back to their home countries.
Prior to this agreement with Guatemala, Canada was the only country designated as a “safe third country.”
Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan said in regard to the new agreement, “It’s really an agreement to collaborate on access to protections for individuals that are seeking it in crossing borders in the region.”
Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales was previously scheduled to discuss a “safe third country” agreement with President Trump on July 15 but unexpectedly canceled his trip after Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled that government approval would be required before an agreement could be made.
Prior to the agreement being signed last Friday, President Trump threatened to impose tariffs, to tax remittances sent back to family members from illegal immigrants in the U.S., or even ban travel altogether should an agreement not be met.
The signing of the recent “safe third country” agreement could suggest that the President’s threats were effective in eliciting a response, as Guatemala currently views the United States as a crucial trading partner.
President Trump described the new diplomatic arrangement as a “very important” negotiation that will be “terrific for them and terrific for the United States.”
As tens of thousands of migrants continue to make their way through Central America with the hope of crossing into the United States, the intention of the “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala is to slow the flow by distributing the burden between countries.
President Trump also expressed hope that the agreement will help to alleviate the burdens currently placed on the immigration system and end the crisis at the border. Although full details about the agreement have yet to be disclosed, the President continued by saying the new agreement will provide “safety for legitimate asylum seekers” and help to “stop asylum fraud and abuse.”
According to administration officials, not only will the agreement help relieve strains on the overwhelmed asylum system, but it will also help to combat human smuggling organizations that seek to exploit migrants, particularly women and children who are more prone to exploitation by such groups.
In May, the Department of Homeland Security signed an agreement with Guatemala “to target human smuggling trafficking networks.”The new “safe third country agreement” will build upon this existing agreement.
Critics of the agreement argue that Guatemala is not a country to which asylum-seekers should be sent, as the country itself is not actually a “safe” place capable of providing adequate protection.
In February, the State Department issued a travel advisory warning Americans to “exercise extreme caution” when traveling to Guatemala, citing safety concerns over gang activity, violence, and other forms of crimes.
The travel advisory states, “Violent crime, such as armed robbery and murder is common. 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.”
Civil rights groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), have also expressed concerns over dangerous conditions in the country.
Lee Gelernt, attorney for the ACLU, said regarding the agreement, “Guatemala can neither offer a safe nor fair and full process, and nobody could plausibly argue otherwise.”
In response to these concerns over safety, Kevin McAleenan noted that there are many places in the United States in which the same dangers exist.
“It’s risky to label an entire country as unsafe,” McAleenan said in response to concerns over safety. He continued by saying, “There are obviously places in Guatemala and in the U.S. that are dangerous, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a full and fair process. That’s what the statute is focused on. It doesn’t mean safety from all risks,” McAleenan said of the matter.
The ACLU among others filed a lawsuit in response to the new third-country asylum rule on July 16. Following the lawsuit, the new asylum policy was blocked by a federal judge in California after being upheld by a federal judge in Washington, D.C.
It is likely that the legality of the new rule will make its way up to the U.S. Court of Appeals in the wake of these contradictory opinions.
Before the “safe third country” agreement between Guatemala and the U.S. can officially take effect, the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security must certify that the asylum system in Guatemala is adequately equipped to protect individuals seeking refuge there.
Additionally, logistics of the deal regarding factors like how and if aliens should be returned are still being finalized.
While Mexican Foreign Minister, Marcelo Ebrard, stated Mexico’s disagreement with any policy that “limits access to asylum or refugee status,” Mexican officials previously agreed to an expansion of the Migration Protection Protocols, under which those seeking admission to the U.S. can legally await asylum processing in Mexico.
According to Secretary McAleenan, since signing the Migration Protection Protocols, the Department of Homeland Security has experienced a 28 percent reduction in crossings in June and are forecasting a 22 percent reduction in July.
However, last month still saw over 100,000 illegal immigrant apprehensions despite illegal border crossings typically decreasing in the warmer summer months. The FY2019 June apprehension numbers, despite being expectedly lower than May’s 13-year high, were 142 percent higher than FY2018 June apprehensions.
With the signing of the new “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala, President Trump hopes to continue to reduce the number of crossings at the U.S. border. He has expressed interest in coming to similar agreements with Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras in the future.
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Sarah McConnell is a reporter for The Texan. Previously, she worked as a Cyber Security Consultant after serving as a Pathways Intern at the Department of Homeland Security – Citizenship and Immigration Services. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Texas A&M as well as her Master of Public Service and Administration degree from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M. In her free time, Sarah is an avid runner, jazz enthusiast, and lover of all things culinary.