US signs controversial deal with Guatemala on immigration

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The United States and Guatemala have signed an agreement to allow the U.S. to deport migrants seeking asylum if they reached the southern U.S. border by crossing through Guatemala, the Trump administration said Friday.

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The controversial deal, which critics say is illegal and immoral, is sure to face legal challenges in the U.S. and already does in Guatemala.

President Donald Trump had publicly pressured his Guatemalan counterpart Jimmy Morales to sign this week, threatening a "ban" or tariffs after Morales was forced to back out of signing a similar deal last week because of political pressure and a legal challenge back home.

"They're doing what we've asked them to do. I think it's going to be a great thing for Guatemala," Trump said in the Oval Office alongside acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart. "They don't want the problems either."

The agreement, sometimes known as a "safe third country" agreement, will force any migrants traveling through the Central American country en route to the U.S. to claim asylum there. If they don't and they apply for asylum in the U.S., they will face deportation to Guatemala, according to McAleenan.

PHOTO: Boys are dropped off at the Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, July 4, 2019. Ilana Panich-Linsman/The New York Times via Redux
Boys are dropped off at the Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, July 4, 2019.

"We want them to feel safe, to claim protection and an asylum claim at the earliest possible point," McAleenan told reporters afterwards. "If they do instead, in the hands of smugglers, make a journey all the way to the U.S. border, they would be removable back to Guatemala."

But refugee and human rights groups say such an agreement imperils migrants, given Guatemala's dangerous crime rate and gang violence and lack of a proper asylum system.

"Guatemala is in no way safe for refugees and asylum seekers, and all the strong-arming in the world won’t make it so," said Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International. "This agreement also violates U.S. law and will put some of the most vulnerable people in Central America in grave danger."

The deal is not in effect yet and must first pass "several procedural steps in both governments to ratify and recognize" it, McAleenan added. He said he thinks that can be done in "several weeks" and be "up and running" in August.

There is already, however, a legal challenge in Guatemala. The Constitutional Court ruled earlier this month that Morales would have to get congressional approval before being able to declare his country is a safe third country. That ruling and the intense political pressure back home forced him to cancel a visit to Washington on July 15, where he and Trump were expected to sign a similar deal.

After the cancellation, Trump took to Twitter to threaten Guatemala with tariffs, restrictions on remittances from Guatemalans in the U.S. to their families back home, or some sort of travel ban if they did not sign.

PHOTO: Mary Nguyen, a Vietnamese community activist, chants at a rally protesting President Trumps deportation policy to deport Vietnamese refugees, at the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in New Orleans, Dec. 20, 2018. Gerald Herbert/AP, FILE
Mary Nguyen, a Vietnamese community activist, chants at a rally protesting President Trump's deportation policy to deport Vietnamese refugees, at the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in New Orleans, Dec. 20, 2018.

It's unclear if and how the legal challenge has been avoided. Guatemalan Interior Minister Degenhart denied Friday that the court said Morales and his administration could not move ahead.

"What the court said, which is a provisional injunction, was basically define the process that had to be followed... define how to do that procedure, and we are going to implement it," Degenhart said.

While the White House celebrated the deal as a victory for Trump's tactics, it's also not clear if the deal does exactly what the administration says it does. McAleenan declined to call it a "safe third country agreement," and in Guatemala's own statement, the country makes no mention of any binding deal.

Instead, Guatemala says the two sides agreed to cooperate on the execution of an implementation plan that would affect Salvadorans and Hondurans -- those Central American migrants who would have to travel through Guatemala en route to the U.S.

The deal is also expected to face legal challenges in the U.S., especially because Guatemala is a dangerous country in its own right and does not have a strong asylum system.

"President Trump's decision to sign this agreement with Guatemala is cruel and immoral. It is also illegal. Simply put, Guatemala is not a safe country for refugees and asylum seekers, as the law requires," said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-NY, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

McAleenan dismissed those concerns, saying it was "risky" to paint Guatemala and Central America in general with a "broad brush... There are places that are dangerous, but that doesn't mean there isn't a process for people to seek protection."

In five trips to the country in the last year, he said that he saw refugee and international organizations working to increase the government's capacity and that the U.S. was committed to helping them improve it.