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February 26, 2020
Some people who arrive at the U.S./Mexico border are being put on planes to Guatemala. Some are told they will be screened for asylum in the United States while in Guatemala - this is a lie. They are sent back to either seek asylum in Guatemala or return to their home country. Since November 683 asylum seekers from Honduras and El Slavador have been flown to Guatemala - only 14 have actually applied for asylum there. The rest have either returned home, or travelled back into Mexico. A sense of what this is like, from the AP:
After he was involved in a fender bender with a gang member, the Honduran delivery driver was in trouble: The accident wasn’t his fault, but he couldn’t pay the damages, and the other driver threatened to kill him.
Fearing for his life, the thin, curly-haired 25-year-old fled to the United States-Mexico border and requested asylum. After nine days in custody, he was put on a plane in McAllen, Texas, and sent to Guatemala. American authorities explained that he would wait there for an “initial screening,” the first step in the U.S. asylum process, and eventually return to stand before a U.S. judge, he said.
But it wasn’t true. The U.S. government sent him here to apply for Guatemalan asylum under a new Trump administration policy that puts migrants into this Central American country’s bare bones asylum system with few resources and fewer options.
Last year the United States signed Asylum Cooperation Agreements with the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Under these agreements, the United States will send people from the region who are seeking asylum in the United States back to Central America. The agreement with Guatemala is the first one to be implemented. In November the U.S. launched a pilot program for people picked up in the El Paso sector of the border. The program is now set to cover the entire U.S/Mexico border.
Thus far only Guatemala has received asylum seekers. El Salvador and Honduras are still making preparations and are not yet prepared to receive people. As one might imagine, few people seek asylum in these countries, and so their asylum offices are under resourced, and not prepared to receive hundreds, and possibly thousands, of asylum seekers. Guatemala is not really prepared either:
When asylum-seekers land in Guatemala, they are processed by officials and asked if they want to stay in Guatemala or return to their home countries. They are given 72 hours to decide, and the government’s support ends at the airport gates.
They usually go to a local migrant shelter to shower and consider their options. If they are interested in seeking asylum in Guatemala, they are channeled toward nonprofit groups that offer legal counseling.
Those who decide to go forward must request an appointment with Guatemalan asylum services, but it can take more than a year for a final decision. During that time, asylum-seekers are on their own.
Yael Schacher, senior U.S. advocate at Refugees International, this month interviewed some 20 people who had been sent to Guatemala.
About half of the people she spoke with had not known they were going to Guatemala when they were put on the plane in the U.S. Some thought they were being transferred to detention centers elsewhere in the United States. Only one of those she spoke with had decided to seek asylum in Guatemala, Schacher said.
These Asylum Cooperation Agreements are a distortion of “safe third country agreements,” which are bilateral commitments for countries to share the burden of hosting refugees. The conditions for such agreements are set forth in Immigration and Naturalization Act:
they must be with countries where an immigrant’s “life or freedom would not be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion” and where they would have “access to a full and fair procedure for determining a claim to asylum or equivalent temporary protection.”
The only country the United States has such an agreement with is Canada.
Last year, as part of on ongoing campaign to essentially block asylum claims at the U.S./Mexico border, the Trump administration launched a series of actions. The first was returning asylum seekers back to border towns in Mexico to await court dates in temporary courts set up at the border. This “remain in Mexico” policy has led to 57,000 people returned to Mexico to await court dates in often very dangerous circumstances. In June the Trump administration threatened tariff increases against all products from Mexico unless the Obrador administration expanded its own immigration enforcement efforts to keep people from crossing Mexico to seek asylum at the U.S. border. After some weeks, Mexico agreed to greatly expand border patrols on its southern border, and has in recent months expanded its own detention of immigrants and denied transit visas to migrants from Africa and the Caribbean. In July the administration decided that no person who arrives at the southern border could seek asylum unless they had first applied for asylum in a country they had crossed through and been denied. This “transit” ban seems a complete violation of very clear legal standards that allow anyone present in the United States, regardless of how they arrived, to apply for asylum. And yet the courts have allowed this to be implemented, even as it is being challenged.
After all of this, and following the refusal of Mexico’s legislature to sign a third country agreement with the United States, the administration began negotiations with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to implement the Asylum Cooperation Agreements. The rule was issued last fall:
A rule published November 18 establishes a new screening process to determine whether the US or Guatemala will process migrants’ claims for protection. It applies both to immigrants who show up at US ports of entry on the southern border and those who try to enter the country without authorization between the ports.
The rule claims that asylum seekers will only be sent back to countries where they have “access to a full and fair procedure for determining a claim to asylum or equivalent temporary protection.” The administration has certified that Guatemala’s legal framework meets that standard, a former administration official told Vox, but has not evaluated whether Guatemala has the capacity to accept asylum seekers based on, for example, infrastructure or personnel needs.
The reality is that none of these countries have this capacity. Guatemala is fully dependent on the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for assistance in this process. If they are managing at all now it is only because so few people decide to seek asylum in Guatemala. Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in the world, and is actually the country with the highest level of forced migration - out of its borders - in Central America. It is hard to imagine those Guatemalan asylum seekers being processed in El Salvador, for example, where “immigrant advocate Cesar Ríos, director of the Salvadoran Migrant Institute, described the government unit that handles asylum cases as ‘one person with a desk.’”
What has evolved over the last year is a form of regional “cooperation” imposed on Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador by the Trump administration in order to keep people away from the U.S. border. It has absolutely nothing to do, obviously, with caring for the refugees that the policies of these countries have created. And yet, if the number of people seeking asylum at the border falls, Trump will declare a victory. A victory bought with the blood of refugees.