Last November, the United States began sending Salvadoran and Honduran asylum-seekers to Guatemala, telling them, in effect, to try their luck there. The transfers were conducted under an agreement with Guatemala, one of a series of deals with Central American countries, and one which promoted the idea that Guatemala is a “safe third country” for people fleeing violence — even though its asylum program barely functions and many Guatemalans are themselves heading north to escape violence, corruption, and persecution.
The asylum agreement faced protests and legal challenges, but the U.S. persisted and Guatemala, under the new presidency of Alejandro Giammattei, eventually acquiesced. Nearly 1,000 Honduran and Salvadoran asylum-seekers were sent to Guatemala before the program was suspended in mid-March because of the coronavirus outbreak.
A new report from Refugees International and Human Rights Watch finds that those asylum-seekers were poorly treated by U.S. border officials, misinformed about the program and their prospects of getting into the U.S., and left without resources when they reached Guatemala. According to the Guatemalan government, only 20 of the 939 people sent to Guatemala under the so-called Asylum Cooperative Agreement, or ACA, have actually applied for asylum there.
The report also argues that U.S. is violating domestic and international law by sending people to dangerous conditions in Guatemala without first hearing their asylum claims.
Interviews conducted by the report’s authors with 30 asylum-seekers who were sent to Guatemala revealed confusion and anguish. Interviewees related familiar stories of harsh conditions in U.S. detention: held for days without showers, served inedible frozen food, denied access to medical care, and verbally abused by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers. Many said they did not understand the process by which they were sent to Guatemala.
Homeland Security told him, “There are no Central Americans allowed into the United States.”
One Salvadoran man said that a Homeland Security official told him, “There is no asylum,” and “There are no Central Americans allowed into the United States.” A Honduran woman was also told the U.S. “wasn’t giving asylum anymore.” Unlike the normal process for asylum-seekers, many people subjected to the ACA weren’t asked if they were afraid to return home or go to Guatemala. All of the people interviewed for the report said that they had no chance to meet with an attorney. They were given various forms explaining the ACA, many only in English, but none properly understood that they had to ask for asylum in Guatemala — rather, they believed they’d have the chance to continue their U.S. asylum case from Guatemala. Some people didn’t even understand that they were being sent to Guatemala until they arrived there.
A spokesperson for CBP, Matthew Dyman, said that under the agreement, information is provided in English and Spanish, and that individuals are “referred for an interview with a [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] Asylum Officer, which will determine whether the individual has a reasonable fear of being transferred to Guatemala.” He added that following their transfer, “Guatemalan migration officials interview each individual and refer them to partner non-governmental organizations for services.”
Yet interviewees told Refugees International and Human Rights Watch that registration at the airport “took a cursory two-to-three minutes, during which transferees were not provided any information regarding what would happen to them in Guatemala.” Asylum-seekers had “72 hours to make the decision about whether they would remain in Guatemala, return to the countries they fled, or try to find refuge elsewhere.”
A psychologist who works in the only shelter receiving the asylum-seekers in Guatemala City said the rapid transfer of asylum-seekers compounded the trauma of their initial flight. “Those who arrive under the ACA are often suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic stress, as well as physical illnesses — respiratory infections, headaches, palpitations,” she told the report’s authors. Many of the asylum-seekers interviewed for the report were between 18 and 20 years old. “We are destroying a generation,” the psychologist said.
For most of the people transferred, staying in Guatemala was untenable. Guatemala’s capacity to take in asylum-seekers is limited for legal and practical reasons. First off, the gangs that operate in El Salvador and Honduras also have a presence in Guatemala, and many people fleeing the region say they do not feel they will be safe anywhere within it. Also, Guatemala has high rates of violence against women, with perpetrators enjoying relative impunity for those crimes, and today’s report notes that 75 percent of the asylum-seekers sent to Guatemala under the ACA were women and children.
Asylum law in Guatemala is “clunky and very politicized,” said Refugees International’s Yael Schacher, and there is little bureaucratic infrastructure. The report notes that Guatemala “received fewer than 50 new asylum claims per year from 2002-2014,” and that a June 2019 State Department cable claimed that Guatemala had not processed one asylum claim in over a year. And Guatemala is a very poor country, dealing with high levels of poverty and food insecurity that force thousands of its own citizens to emigrate each year. There are few shelters available to migrants in Guatemala. The ACA came without funding from the U.S. to care for asylum-seekers, and Guatemalan law was clear that money could not be spent implementing the agreement.
That lack of capacity is probably why more people weren’t sent, Schacher says. “The plan that the U.S. had for this was to be much bigger, they wanted to send hundreds of people each week,” she said. “But I think as more families began to be sent, the situation became untenable in Guatemala. There was no place for those people to go. It’s also clear that UNHCR” — the U.N. refugee agency — “was not going to sanction this, not going to facilitate. So lack of UNHCR support for it, criticism from the Guatemala side and from the press may have put some brakes on it.”
Dyman, the CBP spokesperson, said that “a core part of the bilateral agreement is that the United States will transfer only the number of individuals that Guatemala has the capacity to accept and process.”
But the need to transfer large numbers of people to Guatemala was also reduced by the success of the administration’s other efforts to severely restrict the options for asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. Tens of thousands of people have been thrown into the Remain in Mexico program, which forced them to wait — often in camps or on the street — in Mexican border cities while their case proceeded in the U.S. A transit bar blocked asylum for anyone who did not first ask for protection in the countries they passed through en route to the U.S., and other programs sped up the review and rejection of asylum claims at the border.
“The situation became untenable in Guatemala. There was no place for those people to go.”
Now, the coronavirus pandemic has brought asylum almost to a halt. Last week, the Washington Post reported that just two people have been granted humanitarian protection at the border since late March. Citing public health, the U.S. has expelled over 20,000 unauthorized border crossers, most of them directly to Mexico, where, as The Intercept has reported, they face a chaotic situation and few resources. Even children’s asylum requests are being blocked. The pandemic has created the perfect pretext for White House immigration adviser Stephen Miller and other anti-immigrant hard-liners to enact the election-year border blockade of their dreams.
Still, advocates such as Schacher worry that the U.S. will press on with implementing asylum cooperative agreements with El Salvador and Honduras — countries even less equipped to offer protection than Guatemala. Honduras, for one, has been a willing partner for the Trump administration, and Guatemala has pushed back against deportation flights from the U.S. during the pandemic, which have helped spread Covid-19 from U.S. immigration detention centers to Latin America. Schacher said if that continues and “if that gets annoying enough for the U.S., I can see the U.S. beginning to send Guatemalans to Honduras.”
She added that lawsuits against the ACAs, including one brought by the asylum officers’ union, are proceeding. “They may want to start quickly sending people to Honduras before they get stopped by the courts,” she said. “The goal of the Trump administration is to deport as many people as possible.”
Dyman said that “there are no imminent plans to begin ACA transfers to Honduras; when international travel conditions improve we will resume discussions about implementing these agreements.”
“They may want to start quickly sending people to Honduras before they get stopped by the courts.”
The program has been promoted by the administration as “burden sharing” to “control the flow of aliens into the United States” — a framing that ignores the cross-border ubiquity of violence in Central America, not to mention the disparate resources of a rich country like the United States and its historical role in generating instability in the region.
“From the U.S. perspective, this is just a burden shifting exercise, not a burden sharing exercise,” Schacher said. “This is a border enforcement policy rather than anything else.”