GUATEMALA CITY – The chartered U.S. government flights land here every day or two, depositing Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers from the U.S. border. Many arrive with the same question: “Where are we?”
For the first time ever, the United States is shipping asylum seekers who arrive at its border to a so-called safe third country to seek refuge there. The Trump administration hopes the program will serve as a model for others in the region.
But during its first weeks, asylum seekers and human rights advocates say, migrants have been put on planes without being told where they were headed, and dumped here without being given basic information about what to do next.
When the migrants land in Guatemala City, they’re given little information about what it means to apply for asylum in one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries. Those who don’t immediately apply are told to leave the country in 72 hours. The form is labeled “Voluntary Return.”
“In the U.S., the agents told us our cases would be transferred, but they didn’t say where. Then they lined us up to get on the plane,” said Marta, 43, from Honduras. She sat in a migrant shelter here with her 17-year-old son, who nursed a gunshot wound in the left cheek – the work, mother and son say, of a Honduran faction of MS-13.
“When we looked out the window, we were here,” she said. “We thought, ‘Where are we? What are we supposed to do now?'”
Human rights organizations in Guatemala say they have recorded dozens of cases of asylum seekers who were misled by U.S. officials into boarding flights, and who were not informed of their asylum rights upon arrival. Of the 143 Hondurans and Salvadorans sent to Guatemala since the program began last month, only five have applied for asylum, according to the country’s migration agency.
Safe third country is one of the Trump administration’s most dramatic initiatives to curb migration – an effort to remake the U.S. asylum system. Trump has called it “terrific for [Guatemala] and terrific for us.”
But the Asylum Cooperation Agreement is bringing migrants to a country unable to provide economic and physical security for its own citizens – many of whom are themselves trying to migrate. In the fiscal year 2019, Guatemala was the largest source of migrants detained at the U.S. border, at more than 264,000. The country has only a skeletal asylum program, with fewer than a dozen asylum officers.
As the deal was negotiated, it drew concerns from the United Nations and human rights organizations. But its implementation, advocates say, has been worse than they feared.
“It’s a total disaster,” said Thelma Shau, who has observed the arrival of asylum seekers at La Aurora International Airport in her role overseeing migration issues for Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman.
“They arrive here without being told that Guatemala is their destination,” she said. “They are asked, ‘Do you want refuge here or do you want to leave?’ And they have literally minutes to decide without knowing anything about what that means.”
The Guatemalan government says it explains asylum options, and migrants are simply choosing to leave voluntarily.
“Central American people are given comprehensive attention when they arrive in the country, and respect for their human rights is a priority,” said Alejandra Mena, a spokeswoman for Guatemala’s migration agency. “The information provided is complete for them to make a decision.”
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment. The United States has signed similar safe third country agreements with El Salvador and Honduras, but they have not yet been implemented. In recent days, Trump Administration officials have said they are considering sending Mexican asylum seekers to Guatemala to seek refuge there.
Human rights groups in Guatemala who have observed the process say migrants here are not given key information about their options – such as what asylum in Guatemala entails, and where they would stay while being processed. Many migrants are aware that Guatemala suffers from the same gang violence and extortion that forced them from their home countries.
Paula Arana observed the orientation as child protection liaison for the human rights ombudsman.
“It’s clear that the government is not providing enough information for asylum seekers to make a decision, especially in the three minutes they are given,” she said. “Instead, they are being pushed out of the country.”
The U.S. had suggested it would begin the implementation of the agreement by sending single men to Guatemala. But less than a month after it began, families with young children are arriving on the charter flights. Last week, Arana said, a two-year-old arrived with flulike symptoms.
Jorge, 35, his wife and two daughters, 11 and 15, landed here Thursday. A day later, they were clustered together at the Casa del Migrante, a shelter in Guatemala City, where government officials took them in a bus. They had been given the papers with 72 hours notice to leave Guatemala, and couldn’t figure out what to do.
The family had fled multiple threats from gangs in Honduras, which started with an interpersonal dispute between Jorge’s wife and one of the gang’s leaders. Jorge was certain going back meant certain death. Like Marta, Jorge did not want his last name to be published out of fear for his family’s safety.
“We’re thinking about our options. We know we can’t stay here. What would I do? Where would we stay?” he said. “Maybe we need to try to cross to the United States again.”
The U.N. high commissioner for Refugees is not participating in the program. But officials say they’re aware of problems with its implementation.
“UNHCR has a number of concerns regarding the Asylum Cooperation Agreement and its implementation,” said Sibylla Brodzinsky, UNHCR’s regional spokesperson for Central America and Mexico. “We have expressed these concerns to the relevant U.S. and Guatemalan authorities.”
Human rights advocates who have interviewed the asylum seekers, known locally as “transferidos,” say many have decided their best option is to migrate again to the United States. Smugglers often offer their customers three chances to make it across the border.
Migrants at the Casa del Migrante described spending a week in ICE custody in the United States, where they had intended to make their asylum claims. Many carried binders full of evidence they assumed would bolster their cases. On her phone, Marta saved a video of her son being tortured by MS-13.
But in their brief conversations with U.S. immigration officials, they were told they would not be given the opportunity to apply for asylum in the United States.
“We had all this information to show them,” Marta said, leafing through photos of her son’s scars and Honduran court documents. “They said, ‘That’s not going to help you here.’ “
In interviews with The Washington Post, some migrants said they were told vaguely that their cases were being “transferred.” Others were told they were going to be returned to their countries of origin.
“One agent told me, ‘You’re going back to Honduras,'” Marta said. But then they arrived in Guatemala City.
“When we looked out the window we just assumed it was a stop,” her son said.
Marta believed Guatemala might be even more dangerous. They had no connection to the country and nowhere to stay beyond their first few days. When she left the migrant shelter to buy food Friday morning, she said, she stumbled upon a crime scene with a dead body a few blocks away.
During their nine-day detention at an ICE facility in Texas, she said, the family shared a cell with a Guatemalan family that was fleeing violence perpetrated by a different MS-13 cell based here.
“Why would they send us to a country where the same gangs are operating?” she asked.
In the absence of a thorough explanation of their asylum rights in Guatemala, El Refugio de la Niñez is offering a short tutorial to the asylum seekers. So far, 45 have attended.
“The Guatemalan government is completely absent in this whole process,” said Leonel Dubon, the director of the U.N.-funded center. “It sends a clear message. The government isn’t here to offer shelter, it’s here to push people out as quickly as possible.”
The Trump administration negotiated the safe third country agreement last year with lame duck Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales.
Guatemala’s constitutional court initially blocked the deal. Then Trump threatened tariffs on the country and taxes on remittances sent home by Guatemalans living in the United States. It was eventually signed in July.
President-elect Alejandro Giammattei is set to take office on Tuesday. He has raised concerns about the agreement, saying he hadn’t been briefed on its details.
At the signing ceremony, Trump said it would “provide safety for legitimate asylum seekers, and stop asylum fraud and abuses [of the] system.”
U.S. asylum officers do not vet the cases of migrants before they are sent to Guatemala.
In her brief conversations with U.S. immigration agents, Marta tried to get them to look at her binder full of documents and photos.
“They weren’t interested,” she said. “They just kept saying that your case will be transferred to an institution that can handle it.”