Trump administration reaches deal to send asylum seekers to El Salvador

In an effort to deter migrants from seeking asylum in the United States, the administration wants to send them to the Central American nation.

A member of the gang response unit Fuerzas de Intervencion Rapida al Territorio in Soyapango, El Salvador.

The Trump administration has reached an accord that could allow the United States to turn away asylum seekers at the U.S. border and send them to El Salvador to seek refuge, pushing migrants into one of the most dangerous countries in the world. The deal between the two governments is the latest in a series of policies aimed at creating new layers of deterrents to the influx of migrants applying for protection on U.S. soil.

Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, is scheduled to announce the deal Friday afternoon, according to administration officials with knowledge of the agreement. McAleenan traveled to El Salvador to hash out the accord last month with president Nayib Bukele. News of the accord was first reported by the Associated Press.

U.S. officials describe the deal as an “asylum cooperation agreement,” insisting that such an accord does not amount to what is known as a “safe third country” deal. That term has been stigmatized in Central America, in large part because it would be difficult to consider the Northern Triangle region of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala as a safe haven given that it has some of the highest homicide rates in the world.

In practice, though, the asylum cooperation agreement with El Salvador could potentially achieve what McAleenan is seeking across the hemisphere: deals that aim to stem the surging numbers of migrants from around the world who have overwhelmed U.S. immigration courts with humanitarian claims.

Asylum seekers from Nicaragua, Cuba and other nations who pass through El Salvador en route to the U.S. border would be eligible for return there under the terms of the deal, according to officials with knowledge of the accord. As part of the plan, the United States will help build an asylum system in El Salvador and in other nations in the region, seeking to fund the effort through United Nations refu­gee agencies.

McAleenan reached a similar deal with Guatemala in August that has yet to be implemented. The Salvadoran accord is different in a key regard: Unlike Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, the Salvadoran leader is one of the most popular figures in Latin America, with an approval rating topping out at 90% in some polls.

Some nations where McAleenan has sought such accords, including Panama and Mexico, have balked, saying they won’t sign safe third country agreements even as they demonstrate a willingness to reach deals that could function in a similar way.

Bukele, 38, a centrist businessman and former mayor of San Salvador, has sought to leverage his cooperation to obtain benefits from the Trump administration. They include additional U.S. investment as well as a potential fix for the roughly 200,000 Salvadorans who have been living in the United States for nearly 20 years with a form of provisional residency known as temporary protected status.

The Trump administration’s attempts to end TPS for El Salvador and other nations has been blocked in court, and the current extension is valid through January 2020.

“Developing a safe El Salvador is a first step toward ending the exodus of Salvadorans to the United States,” Bukele wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in July. “The main reason cited by our compatriots who flee our country is the lack of safety and security they face in their own neighborhoods.”

The asylum accord with El Salvador would not send its citizens back to their country if they reach the U.S. border seeking protection, but they could be routed to Guatemala if that deal takes effect.

McAleenan has said the United States will implement the asylum agreements carefully to avoid overwhelming receiver nations with people needing resettlement.

Gang violence has pushed El Salvador’s homicide rate to one of the world’s highest this decade, but in recent years the level of violence has dropped. According to the latest Salvadoran figures, the murder rate has dropped by half since last year, which the government attributes to its military crackdown on gangs.

Irregular migration from El Salvador also has declined significantly in recent years, and U.S. agents now arrest far more Hondurans and Guatemalans at the U.S. border, according to the latest data.