What is a safe third country agreement?

What is a safe third country agreement?
© Getty Images

A big sticking point in negotiations between Mexico and the Trump administration to prevent tariffs from being imposed on Mexican exports is the U.S. demand for a “safe third country” agreement when it comes to asylum-seekers traveling to the United States.

Mexico has refused to agree to the commitment, under which potential refugees would be required to apply for benefits in the country where they first land, and not the country where they ultimately want to settle.

The Trump administration wants the deal to close what it calls “immigration loopholes.” It wants Central American migrants to have to apply for asylum in Mexico, and not the United States.

If Mexico signed a safe third country agreement, Central American migrants would no longer be able to cross the U.S.-Mexico border to surrender to U.S. authorities and stay in the country while they await asylum proceedings.

The United States only has one safe third country agreement. It was signed with Canada in 2004.

Safe country status and asylum law in general is based on several United Nations conventions regulating the movement of people.

One convention is that asylum-seekers should not be returned to a country where their safety would be in jeopardy.

That could be an issue with Mexico, as its capacity to process and protect asylum-seekers is seen as insufficient, according to a 2018 report by the Women's Refugee Commission.

“Many migrants are arbitrarily detained in poor conditions in processing facilities upon apprehension,” reads the report on Mexico's refugee capacity.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's government slashed immigration and refugee budgets for 2019, leaving the country's refugee agency with less than $1 million for the year, and the National Migration Institute with about a $70 million operating budget.

In fiscal 2018, 17.8 percent of the 521,090 people apprehended crossing the southern border made a credible fear claim, up from 13.3 percent of the 415,517 apprehended in 2017.

That number will almost certainly be much higher in fiscal year 2019, as 593,507 people were apprehended between October and May.

Central American migrants have become more prone to making asylum claims and traveling in family groups, which allows them to wait out their asylum cases outside of detention.