In late November, U.S. immigration authorities began deporting some Central American asylum-seekers to Guatemala under a new policy that makes it nearly impossible for them to seek asylum in the U.S.
But Guatemalan human rights workers say that their country’s asylum system isn’t capable of handling even the relatively small numbers that have been sent there so far, and that asylum seekers’ precarious status in the country has already pushed many to leave.
“They’re preferring to move on rather than staying here in a dangerous country,” said Rebeca Sanchez-Ralda, a Guatemalan attorney working with the U.S.-based organization Justice in Motion.
According to Sanchez-Ralda, insecurity in Guatemala and the low capacity of the government to process an influx of asylum applications means the new arrivals are faced with an impossible choice: stay, and face a new set of risks, or set off towards more familiar ones.
“They don’t have all the personnel to do the interviews or the shelters to put people,” she said. “I don’t think it’s going to be possible at all.”
The policy is the latest of the Trump administration’s attempts to block asylum at the Southern U.S. border. Now, people who show up looking for protection in the U.S. can be shipped to Guatemala and told to apply for asylum there instead. But the U.N. has called Guatemala’s asylum process “nascent,” and advocates familiar with it say that nearly all the applications in the system right now have been stuck in a bureaucratic limbo for years.
“Over 500 asylum petitions have been pending for more than two years now,” said Amílcar Vásquez, a Project Director with Pastoral de Movilidad Humana, a Catholic group that works with the UN to provide services to migrants.
Vásquez says that asylum-seekers are given no support from the Guatemalan government while their applications are being processed.
“They’re going to become desperate without any guarantee of help or assistance from the state.”
The Wall Street Journal reports that as of mid-January 158 people had been sent to Guatemala under the new policy. So far, only Honduran and El Salvadoran nationals have been subjected to the new policy, including families with young children.
The three countries — collectively known as the Northern Triangle — are struggling with record levels of violence and instability. Decades of civil conflicts that were inflamed by covert U.S. involvement in the region, along with a street gang crisis that traces its origins to a wave of deportations from Los Angeles in the 1990s, have made them some of the most dangerous in the world.
Guatemala had the twenty-sixth-highest overall homicide rate in the world in 2017, along with the seventh-highest for females. Honduras has struggled with political violence since a 2009 military coup, and El Salvador now has the highest murder rate in the world, driven primarily by street gangs that have spread to neighboring countries.
“Violence is common here, including extortion and other types of crimes that exist in El Salvador and Honduras as well,” said Sanchez-Ralda. “We have kidnappings, killing of women, and hatred towards LGBTQ people.”
To enable the new deportations, the Trump administration signed an Asylum Cooperative Agreement (ACA) with former Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales last July. Similar agreements have also been signed with the governments of Honduras and El Salvador. U.S. officials have indicated that the program will soon be expanded to include asylum-seekers from other countries.
This means people fleeing persecution from any country in the world could be sent to Central America rather than have the opportunity to seek asylum in the U.S.
Upon arrival in Guatemala, disoriented asylum-seekers encounter a rushed and confusing process where they have only 72 hours to decide whether to apply for asylum there. One Guatemalan official described the policy’s implementation thus far as a “total disaster.”
The ACLU filed suit on Jan. 15 in U.T. vs. Barr challenging the changes to asylum regulations that allow the ACAs — also known as “safe third country” agreements — to go into effect. The suit claims the policy violates U.S. and international law by failing to protect asylum-seekers from being exposed to harm in the three countries, which are among the most dangerous in the world.
One of the plaintiffs in the ACLU’s suit, identified as U.T., is a gay man from El Salvador who was disowned by his parents and threatened by an MS-13 gang member who solicited sex from him. After fleeing to the U.S. to claim asylum, he was instead deported to Guatemala, where he says officials told him it wasn’t safe for gay people and advised him to go to Mexico.
The ACLU’s complaint details how it is now nearly impossible for anyone subjected to an ACA to have their asylum claims heard in a U.S. court. The Trump administration has issued new rules that govern how someone is treated when they show up at the border and ask for asylum. Now, rather than being given a chance to convince an immigration judge that they should be given asylum in the U.S., they can be funneled into a separate process designed to quickly remove them to one of the countries that has signed an ACA.
In 2017, 3,741 El Salvadorans and 2,048 Hondurans won asylum in the U.S. The new rules make it all but certain that number will plummet as removals under the Guatemala ACA continue.
For those deported to Guatemala so far, the combination of danger and the prospect of navigating a confusing process with little help has already forced many to take their chances elsewhere. There are no restrictions on movement between the three countries, meaning that asylum-seekers who fled persecution in one can be easily reached by a person or group that tracks them down in another.
The ACLU’s suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
“The United States has an obligation to ensure asylum seekers have access to a safe haven from persecution,” said Katrina Eiland of the ACLU. “This policy does the exact opposite, sending them to a country that can’t adequately protect them through an absurd and illegal process.”