President Donald Trump said Friday he has struck a deal that would designate Guatemala as a safe third country for those seeking asylum in the United States — a concept that is facing significant legal hurdles in the Central American country as the Trump administration continues to struggle with the high number of migrants arriving at the southern U.S. border.
The White House did not immediately release details of the agreement, and it is unclear how it would be implemented, considering Guatemala’s constitutional court has ruled that any safe third country agreement would require legislative approval and the proposal has been widely criticized there.
Trump announced the arrangement in a previously unscheduled appearance in the Oval Office with Enrique Degenhart, the Guatemalan minister of government, and acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan.
“We've long been working with Guatemala, and now we can do it the right way,” Trump said Friday. He said the agreement will put “coyotes and the smugglers out of business. These are bad people.”
Trump said the agreement will offer safe harbor for asylum applicants deemed legitimate and that he plans to sign safe third country agreements with other nations soon.
The announcement comes just days after Trump threatened retaliation against Guatemala as discussions stalled over designating the Central American nation as a safe third country, which means that migrants traveling through the country on their journeys to the United States would be directed to first seek protection there.
On a conference call with reporters Friday, McAleenan said the safe third country agreement with Guatemala would “be up and running in August,” after the two governments had completed several steps to ratify the deal.
McAleenan said that under the agreement, Salvadorans and Hondurans would need to seek asylum in Guatemala. “If you have, say, a Honduran family coming across through Guatemala to the U.S. border, we want them to feel safe to make an asylum claim at the earliest possible point,” he said. “If they do instead, in the hands of smugglers, make the journey all the way to the U.S. border, [they would] be removable back to Guatemala.”
“The Guatemalan government does maintain an asylum process,” he said.
When reading the State Department’s description of the security situation in Guatemala, which includes notations that murder is “common,” gang activity is “widespread” and police are ineffective, McAleenan said one shouldn’t “label an entire country as unsafe,” and likened Guatemala to parts of the United States.
McAleenan also likened the third party agreement to arrangements between European countries and Turkey to stem the Syrian migrant crisis in 2015. But he declined to say whether the U.S. government would be providing any assistance to Guatemala to improve safety and security for Honduran and Salvadoran refugees.
Guatemala’s only public statement about the agreement did not explicitly say that it would serve as a safe third country but alluded vaguely to “a plan that will be applied to Salvadorans and Hondurans.”
The statement said the United States would allocate temporary agricultural work visas to Guatemalans, adding that the country’s president, Jimmy Morales, negotiated the deal “to counter grave economic and social repercussions.”
The deal would force thousands of Hondurans and Salvadorans to apply for asylum in Guatemala, one of the region’s poorest countries, which has in some cities struggled to defeat transnational gangs, including MS-13.
“Guatemala’s asylum system isn’t prepared to increase its capacity to 50,000 in less than a year,” said one United Nations official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee, which supports Guatemala’s fledgling asylum system, was not consulted as part of the negotiations, officials said.
Last year, Guatemala received 259 asylum applications, a tiny number compared with the United States and even Mexico. Of those, not a single application was approved, in part because the country is still building institutions to review those cases.
For months, Morales dispatched members of his administration to Washington to negotiate a safe third country agreement with the United States. But earlier this month, shortly before Morales was scheduled to sign the agreement in the White House, Guatemala’s constitutional court ruled that he didn’t have the authority to sign the deal without congressional approval.
The meeting with Trump was canceled. In a statement, Morales then denied that he had ever attempted to negotiate such an agreement. He is in the twilight of his scandal-ridden presidency, with elections scheduled for Aug. 11.
But when Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Guatemala and tax remittances, Morales resumed negotiations. Members of the country’s business community urged him on, raising alarm about the impact of tariffs, but most Guatemalans believe the country is wildly unprepared to offer asylum to thousands of Central Americans.
This year, for the first time in history, more Guatemalans have been apprehended at the U.S. border than citizens of any other country. It remains one of the region’s poorest countries, where migration is seen by many as the only way into a tiny middle class. In 2017, Guatemalans received a total of $8.2 billion in remittances, 11% of Guatemalan gross domestic product.
Guatemalan politicians and analysts were taken aback by the agreement, which most discovered through a White House tweet.
“One characteristic of this government is that it does whatever it wants, in spite of what the law says. This is another example,” said Sandra Morán Reyes, a congresswoman from the Convergencia party.