TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – More than a year ago, the United States began sending asylum seekers to Guatemala to apply for refuge there under an agreement widely criticized by migrant advocates and others. None has received asylum in Guatemala – and fewer than 40 have even bothered to try, a Senate report said.
Since November 2019, the Trump administration has sent at least 945 asylum seekers – most from El Salvador and Honduras – to Guatemala, where they are purportedly able to claim refuge after being rebuffed by the United States.
But only 34 of the 945 asylum seekers began applications in Guatemala, according to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report expected to be released in the closing days of the Trump administration. Of those, 16 abandoned their cases. The remaining 18 have still not received an asylum decision, the report said.
The incoming Biden administration has spoken out against the asylum agreements in Central America.
President-elect Joe Biden “will work to promptly undo” President Trump’s deals with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, Biden’s nominee for national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told the Spanish new agency EFE last month.
“As currently written, the outgoing administration’s so-called ‘asylum cooperative agreements’ deny the right to apply for asylum in the United States to desperate asylum seekers rather than helping create alternative pathways to protection,” he said.
The agreements were a major part of the Trump administration’s strategy to curb a rising number of migrants in U.S. immigration courts with humanitarian claims. The accords showed the administration’s willingness to pressure Central American governments to play a role.
“I keep waiting, but there is no answer,” said one 34-year-old Honduran asylum seeker who was sent to Guatemala last February by the United States and is currently living at a shelter in Guatemala City with her three children. “The truth is I don’t feel safe here. There’s nothing for me and my family here. But I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, in a June 2019 cable obtained by the Senate investigators, reported that the nation “remains among the most dangerous countries in the world” and that it “does not provide sufficient safeguards against refoulement,” referring to the return of asylum seekers and refugees to a country that poses dangers.
Still, the Trump administration went ahead with the Asylum Cooperative Agreement, known as an ACA.
“Guatemala’s lack of capacity is confirmed by the numbers: of the 945 asylum seekers whom the United States transferred to Guatemala, not one has been granted asylum,” said the Senate report, obtained by The Washington Post. The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to an email seeking comment on the document.
The Trump administration later negotiated nearly identical agreements with the governments of Honduras and El Salvador, two of the most dangerous countries in Latin America.
Honduras and El Salvador have not yet implemented the plan because of the pandemic. But Honduran officials said until last week the Trump administration had sought to send a plane of asylum seekers to the country.
Under all three agreements, the United States can send asylum seekers to countries of which they are not citizens to seek refuge. For example, a Honduran could be directed to seek refuge in Guatemala and a Guatemalan could be sent to Honduras.
None of the three countries in the plan has an even remotely developed asylum system, and all of them have struggled to contain powerful gangs, some of which operate across borders.
“Nobody imagined that America’s asylum policies would be systematically weaponized and twisted to the point where they purposely put vulnerable people in danger, yet that is exactly what President Trump did with his shameful Asylum Cooperative Agreements,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman. He called on Biden to immediately cancel the agreements.
Alejandra Mena, a spokeswoman for Guatemala’s national migration institute, confirmed that not one asylum seeker “has been recognized as a refugee who was transported under the ACA.”
Mena did not respond to a request for further details. But Guatemala’s asylum system has struggled with an administrative backlog for years, even before the implementation of the asylum accord.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has been working with the Guatemalan government to “build its capacity to process and protect asylum seekers and refugees,” said spokeswoman Sibylla Brodzinsky.
The 34-year-old Honduran asylum seeker said she was only waiting in Guatemala with the hope that she will be able to return to the United States to make her appeal.
“I don’t understand why they would send me here in the first place,” she said.
Sheridan reported from Mexico City.
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