Trump administration signs asylum agreement with El Salvador

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Friday announced it had reached a deal for the government of El Salvador to expand its capacity to accept asylum-seekers.

Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan provided few specifics on what the agreement will actually do in the immediate future, characterizing it as an extension of the ongoing partnership between the two countries to address migration from the Northern Triangle region.

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McAleenan said at a media briefing alongside the El Salvadorian foreign minister that the deal recognizes the development of the Central American country's own asylum system and builds on its capacity to handle more migrants.

"They have a developing asylum capacity," he said. "We seek to support that and recognize it, and we seek to partner operationally where appropriate on insuring that we can address irregular migration flows and the criminal organizations that profit from them in the region."

The officials were careful not to describe the deal as a "safe third country" agreement, which would have required migrants traveling through El Salvador to apply for asylum there before continuing on to the United States.

But McAleenan said that type of policy could eventually be implemented under this deal.

“That is one potential use of the agreement, that individuals crossing through El Salvador should be able to seek protections there," he said. "But it’s a broader part of our partnership in addressing migration flows in the region."

The arrangement is the latest effort by the Trump administration to curb the number of migrants and asylum-seekers coming to the United States. President TrumpDonald John TrumpPelosi arrives in Jordan with bipartisan congressional delegation Trump says his Doral resort will no longer host G-7 after backlash CNN's Anderson Cooper mocks WH press secretary over Fox News interview MORE announced a similar deal with Guatemala in July.

The strategy has raised concerns among immigration advocates, who noted that scores of migrants are fleeing the violence and poverty of El Salvador and Guatemala and questioned how the countries could reasonably accept additional asylum-seekers.

El Salvador's foreign minister, Alexandra Hill, said President Nayib Bukele's government, which took office just over 100 days ago, has taken a more proactive approach to address the underlying issues that have forced its residents to seek refuge elsewhere.

"We are working every single day to try and solve this issue of people who, by various reasons — reasons of insecurity or reasons of death threats — are forced to leave our country," Hill said.

Trump has in the past threatened to withhold funding from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala if they did not do more to address the flow of migrants, even though experts have said that aid is critical to addressing the underlying causes of migration.

The president has made cracking down on legal and illegal immigration a primary focus of his first term, and his administration has in recent months used executive action to curb the flow of migrants at the southern border.

The Supreme Court earlier this month upheld a policy that makes most asylum-seekers who pass through another country before reaching the U.S. ineligible for asylum, with exceptions for victims of trafficking and migrants who have been denied asylum in the countries through which they traveled.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has in recent weeks rolled out policies curbing benefits for immigrants, particularly if they rely on government programs.

Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan on Wednesday told reporters that the combination of administration initiatives could soon allow for the end of the policy of "catch and release" at the southern border.