Forcing Guatemala into a ‘safe third country’ agreement is jaw-droppingly insane
President Trump threatened last week to impose a travel ban and raise tariffs against Guatemala in retaliation for that country’s refusal to sign a “safe third country” agreement to allow the U.S. government to outsource its asylum system to Guatemala. On July 25, Trump announced that the U.S. and Guatemala had signed a deal for Guatemala to receive asylum seekers from other Central American countries.
Forcing Guatemala into this agreement will jeopardize the lives of tens of thousands of asylum seekers, destabilize Guatemala and the Central American region and drive migration rates even higher.
Details of the plan to declare Guatemala a “safe third country” for U.S.-bound asylum seekers surfaced in mid-July. According to a draft of the original agreement, asylum seekers who present their petitions in the United States could be sent to seek asylum in Guatemala instead; this potentially includes not just Central Americans but asylum seekers from any country, even those who did not pass through Guatemala on their way to the United States.
The proposal to send asylum seekers to Guatemala is part of the Trump administration’s overall push to block these petitioners from entering the United States, policies that include “metering” asylum requests at border ports of entry and sending tens of thousands of people back to Mexico to await resolution on their asylum cases.
Under U.S. and international law, the United States is obligated to hear asylum requests unless an alternative “safe third country” is stipulated through a bilateral agreement. Such a “safe third country” must provide security and due process for asylum seekers. Trump officials tried initially to pressure Mexico to sign a safe third country agreement, but the Mexican government balked, even as it capitulated to Trump’s tariff threats and stepped up efforts to interdict Central American migrants.
So, the Trump administration turned to strong-arming Guatemala.
But Guatemala is not a safe third country, and it’s ludicrous to argue that it is. Poverty, violence, organized crime and institutional corruption are among the deepest in the hemisphere. In fact, most migrants and asylum seekers who arrive at the U.S. southern border are coming from Guatemala.
Why would the president of Guatemala back a deal that could turn Guatemala into a vast concentration camp for deported asylum seekers? Over the past two years, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales has been currying favor with Trump to shore up his own embattled administration, which has been under investigation by Guatemalan prosecutors and a U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission for illicit campaign financing. Last year, Morales defied a Guatemalan court order and expelled the head of the anti-corruption commission — and the Trump administration looked the other way.
Rumors that Morales was ready to sign a safe third country agreement provoked widespread opposition within Guatemala from across the political spectrum. Five former Guatemalan foreign ministers and the country’s Human Rights Ombudsman filed a motion with the country’s Constitutional Court to block the agreement. The court agreed, stipulating that such a deal could not be signed unilaterally by Morales without the approval of the Guatemalan Congress. It was a victory for the rule of law in Guatemala.
Then Trump had a tantrum. First, the administration issued a new — and blatantly illegal — rule declaring asylum seekers ineligible to petition for U.S. asylum if they had passed through any country en route to the United States. When a federal judge quickly struck down that rule, Trump turned his threats back to Guatemala, telling reporters that “we’re looking at something very severe with respect to Guatemala.”
The threats include imposing a travel ban on Guatemala, raising tariffs and imposing a tax on remittances sent back to Guatemala by migrants in the United States. This could have a severe destabilizing impact on the country’s economy: Remittances totaled U.S. $9.2 billion last year, or 12 percent of Guatemala’s economy, and exports to the U.S. totaled nearly U.S. $4 billion, or 5 percent of Guatemala’s economy.
It appears Trump’s threats worked, a catastrophic scenario for the asylum seekers, as well as for Guatemala and the entire region. Some asylum seekers sent back to Mexico under Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” program have been reportedly raped, extorted and murdered at the hands of gangs and organized crime. In Guatemala, it would be worse. The Guatemalan state does not have even a minimal ability to provide safe and secure conditions for asylum seekers — it can’t provide those conditions for its own citizens.
Moreover, by pressuring Guatemala’s government to once again defy a court order, Trump’s threats are eroding Guatemala’s hard-fought democratic gains. Following decades of civil war, the business elites’ commitment to democratic institutions in Guatemala has been tenuous, and this could destroy it entirely.
Within hours of Trump’s recent threats, there were signs that Guatemala’s powerful business associations were joining Morales in questioning the legitimacy of the Constitutional Court and pressuring the Guatemalan Congress to accede to the agreement.
Notably, the Guatemalan government’s tweet announcing the accord did not call it a “safe third country” agreement, mentioning only a vague U.S. assurance that Guatemalans would be granted temporary work permits for seasonal laborers in U.S. agriculture.
It is not clear how the accord will be implemented and whether Morales will seek congressional approval as mandated by Guatemala’s highest court. Under pressure from business elites, it is possible Guatemala’s lame-duck Congress may give its approval, but that would inflict grave political damage. Morales’ presidential term expires this year, adding another layer of political turmoil to this issue.
The agreement may run into legal hurdles in the United States, as well, since Guatemala clearly does not meet the criteria for a “safe” country of refuge. Yet, it remains to be seen if U.S. courts will enjoin the agreement, or let it remain in effect as the legal appeals wind on.
Guatemala over the past decade has been a hemispheric model for its anti-impunity and anti-corruption campaigns and its inch-by-inch arduous efforts to build judicial integrity and the rule of law. But the U.S. — under Trump — is enabling a sickening unraveling of those efforts, which will not go unnoticed by other countries in the region.
Forcing Guatemala into a “safe third country” agreement undermines Guatemalan sovereignty, erodes citizen security and threatens political stability in Guatemala and the region. And this, of course, is why Central American families will continue their exodus.
Elizabeth Oglesby is associate professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson. She is co-editor of “The Guatemala Reader” (2011) and “Guatemala: The Question of Genocide” (2018) and a former editor of Central America Report.