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For asylum seekers, Guatemala is no ‘safe third country’

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On Friday, President Trump announced an agreement that his administration hopes will make it more difficult for Central American migrants to apply for asylum at the southern border. Under its terms, migrants who pass through Guatemala will be required to apply for asylum there — instead of in the United States. Those who don’t and then make it to the U.S. will be deported to Guatemala. At the signing ceremony, Trump said that the new deal will “end widespread abuse of the system and the crippling crisis on our border.”

Dream on, Donald. This new measure, which basically amounts to a “safe third country” agreement, is logistically and legally flawed. It will likely do little to stem the migrant crisis at the border and may well exacerbate it. That is, if it ever actually goes into effect. Like so many of the president’s other great “deals,” this arrangement might simply amount to a reckless political stunt.

Current law generally requires that asylum-seekers be physically present in the U.S. in order to make their claim for humanitarian relief. One exception to this provision is if an asylum-seeker can be deported to another country where they would not be threatened and where “the alien would have access to a full and fair procedure for determining a claim to asylum.” For example, Canada is recognized by the U.S. as a safe third country for migrants to seek humanitarian relief.

Guatemala is not Canada.

Due to Guatemala’s gang violence, cartel activity, and civil instability, the country regularly ranks high on lists of the world’s most dangerous nations. In a travel advisory for Guatemala, the U.S. State Department notes that armed robbery and murder are “common,” and that violent street crime, extortion, and narcotics trafficking are “widespread.” It is clearly not a safe place for asylum-seekers to apply for humanitarian relief. But the Trump administration wants to pretend that it is — and force people fleeing Central America to seek refuge there.

This is beyond absurd: If the U.S. is not able to process thousands of migrants and potential asylum-seekers, why would anyone think that we could outsource this problem to Guatemala, one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere?

Even if we were to accept the administration’s ludicrous notion that Guatemala is a safe place for refugees, this agreement would still have only a limited effect on our border crisis. The Central American country that is the top source of unauthorized migrants to the U.S. is Guatemala; in fiscal year 2019 to date, Customs and Border Protection statistics show that more than 167,000 Guatemalans traveling with family members were apprehended at the southwest border. Yet this deal does not apply to Guatemalans, it applies to migrants who transit through Guatemala. Nor does it apply to unaccompanied children.

Guatemala only agreed to this deal after Trump threatened the country with tariffs and other retaliatory measures. But the term of Guatemala’s president, Jimmy Morales, ends in January, and there is no guarantee that the succeeding administration will honor the deal. Guatemala’s constitutional court has already stated that this type of accord would require congressional approval, which Morales so far has not obtained. And Guatemala’s human rights prosecutor said the country’s interior minister, who signed the deal on Friday, “does not have the power to sign an agreement of this nature.”

In any case, a June analysis by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute (MPI) found that safe third country agreements are “unlikely to hold the key to solving the crisis unfolding at the U.S. southern border.” MPI cited the “questionable state” of Guatemala’s asylum system as one of multiple factors for this conclusion. While President Trump said that the agreement with Guatemala will put “coyotes and the smugglers out of business,” the deal may drive more refugees to turn to the cartels to reach the U.S., or to embark on risky journeys by sea that bypass Guatemala. 

Although the status quo at the border is unacceptable and merits attention, the situation deserves solutions that are grounded in reality. Bullying a small, economically-vulnerable nation into an asylum agreement is a simplistic approach to a complicated problem. Sadly, the people who will suffer as the administration continues to try and close America’s doors are desperate refugees who have a legal right to apply for asylum here.

Trump’s safe third country agreement with Guatemala makes a mockery of the principles of asylum. It represents an abdication of our responsibility to help victims of persecution under U.S. and international law.

Raul A. Reyes is an immigration attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.  A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he is also a contributor to and CNN Opinion. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaulAReyes, Instagram: raulareyes1.

Tags Asylum seeker Donald Trump Forced migration Guatemala Illegal immigration Immigration

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