Asylum seekers from countries other than Mexico and Canada will be forced to stay in Guatemala after reaching the U.S.-Mexico border if they failed to first apply for asylum in the Central American nation, according to a “safe third country” agreement President Donald Trump signed on Friday.
Implementation of the agreement, which would disproportionately impact migrants fleeing gang and domestic violence in Honduras and El Salvador, faces an uphill battle considering Guatemala’s own constitutional court has granted three injunctions barring the government from entering into a deal without approval of the country’s congress.
Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales said the agreement was necessary to avoid “drastic sanctions […] many of them designed to strongly punish our economy, such as taxes on remittances that our brothers send daily, as well as the imposition of tariffs on our export goods and migratory restrictions.”
While the details of the deal are still murky, the Guatemalan government said in a statement its labor ministry would would “start issuing work visas in the agriculture industry, which will allow Guatemalans to travel legally to the United States, to avoid being victims of criminal organizations, to work temporarily and then return to Guatemala, which will strengthen family unity.”
The Trump administration argues that this agreement — by forcing migrants from Central America and other countries to stay in Guatemala while their asylum cases are adjudicated — will reduce the number of migrants at the border and eventually curb migration. Like Migrant Protection Protocols, the Trump administration policy which forces migrants to wait in Mexican border towns for the duration of their immigration proceedings, this policy will only further endanger asylum seekers who were forced out of their countries by factors beyond their own control.
The idea that Guatemala, a country whose own residents make up the highest number of families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, is a “safe” country for vulnerable migrants should be rejected on its face.
Guatemala has one of the highest rates of femicide anywhere in the world, with over 670 reported cases in 2017 and 711 reported cases in 2016 according to the Guatemalan Women’s Group.
Amnesty International found that human rights abusers can literally get away with murder in Guatemala, particularly when their victims are women. Less than 4% of homicide cases result in the conviction of those responsible. The other two countries with similarly high rates of gender-based violence are El Salvador and Honduras. Asylum seekers, who are likely fleeing that same violence in their Northern Triangle home countries, will be forced to stay in Guatemala where the risk of being harmed may be even higher.
The dangerous policy of placing vulnerable migrants anywhere but the interior of the United States has created a flood of troubling stories about individuals killed at the hands of gang members or human traffickers after being returned to Mexico. The implementation of Migrant Protection Protocols has coincided with an increase in murders.
Top House Judiciary Committee Democrats sounded the alarm on these concerns Monday, issuing a statement condemning the agreement, citing Guatemala’s high homicide rate. They argue the deal with Guatemala fails to meet the Immigration Nationality Act’s (INA) definition of a “safe third country” agreement.
According to the INA, the relevant country must “have access to a full and fair procedure for determining a claim for asylum or equivalent temporary protections” and that the life or freedom of individuals passing through the country “would not be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” Guatemala cannot in good faith fulfill those requirements.
“Once again the President is attempting to illegally circumvent our immigration laws in his all-out effort to stop asylum seekers from coming to the United States, going so far as to bully a foreign country with threats of tariffs and visa bans to force the agreement,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), chair of the House Committee on the Judiciary, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), chair of the Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), vice-chair of the Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee, said in a statement. “Guatemala’s immigration laws and infrastructure are woefully inadequate and unable to meet the needs of migrants coming from other countries in Central America.”
“It is clear to anyone looking at what is happening in Guatemala that it cannot reasonably be classified as a ‘safe third country,’” they added. “Instead of taking these illegal and divisive actions, President Trump should be working with Congress to pass bipartisan solutions that address the root causes of migration.”
It’s unclear, however, how this agreement would work out logistically. Guatemala is a small country. In spite of that, it will be tasked with managing thousands of refugees from not only the neighboring countries of Honduras and El Salvador, but also from other countries with high migration rates, including Cuba, Venezuela, and Cameroon.
As Reuters reported, Guatemala has little experience receiving large numbers of asylum seekers and refugees. According to the United Nations, just 262 people applied for refugee status in Guatemala between January and November 2018. In comparison, roughly 155,000 families from El Salvador and Honduras have been apprehended at the U.S. border since October 2018.
It also isn’t clear if this will curb migration in any tangible way. The Trump administration’s view is that a tougher stance on the border is necessary to serve as a deterrent, but previous policies that would qualify as equally tough haven’t done much to that effect. Families fearing for their lives in countries of origin will continue to do so.