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The dangers of Trump’s "safe third country" agreements in Central America

Thousands of migrants will be sent back to dangerous conditions under these harmful policies.

A family traveling with a migrant caravan in Mexico in 2018.  Photo: Omar Martínez / Cuartoscuro.com

The Trump administration is methodically dismantling the U.S. asylum system to slash immigration to the U.S. One of the most devastating changes the administration has introduced is negotiating agreements with Central American countries to require asylum seekers traveling through a country to first seek protection there. 

The agreements would effectively make it impossible for migrants to seek safety at the U.S. southern border—and further endanger the lives of thousands of people fleeing violence and poverty in the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) region and other countries. 

In November 2020, the Trump administration issued an interim final rule to implement the agreements with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Since then, the U.S. has deported Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers to Guatemala—returning at least 1,000 adults and children to the country. 

Here's what you need to know about these dangerous agreements:

What is a "safe third country" agreement?

Historically, two countries have negotiated “safe third country” agreements to better manage the flow of refugee and asylum claims at their border. This agreement is signed under the premise that both countries can offer asylum to people in need. That is not the case in the Trump administration’s agreements with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. 

The U.S. signed its first “safe third country” agreement with Canada. Essentially, if you pass through the U.S intending to seek asylum in Canada, or vice versa, you will be turned back because the U.S. and Canada are deemed safe enough for asylum seekers and equipped to process asylum and refugee claims in a fair manner. 

 

How the Trump administration is using “safe third country” agreements 

Safe third country agreements were created to share the responsibility of helping asylum seekers, ensuring that they are safe and protected from the harms from which they are fleeing. The Trump administration’s repeat attacks on the legal immigration system —as well as the president’s hateful rhetoric about asylum seekers—demonstrates that this administration does not recognize or intend to uphold its responsibility to protect asylum seekers.

The safe third country agreement is not a treaty that requires congressional approval, and it can be signed and enacted unilaterally by the president. This has allowed the Trump administration to bypass Congress and the courts, impose further restrictions on asylum seekers, curb migration to the U.S., and pass the U.S.’ obligation to receive asylum seekers off to other countries. 

 

The U.S. has signed various agreements with Central American countries that cannot assist large numbers of migrants.

 Joyce Ajlouny/AFSC 

Under the Trump administration, the Department of Homeland Security has pressured governments of countries in Central America into signing agreements to stop migrants from traveling north to the U.S.- Mexico border.

Guatemala as a "safe third country": The Trump administration has entered a “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala, which would require asylum seekers passing through Guatemala to the U.S. to apply for asylum first in Guatemala. 

The agreement could be a violation of U.S. refugee protection laws. What’s more, Guatemala cannot qualify as a “safe third country” as it lacks infrastructure to assist large numbers of refugees. U.S has confirmed plans to begin sending Mexican asylum seekers to Guatemala, even though the outgoing Guatemalan administration denies agreeing to receive Mexican asylum seekers.

An agreement with El Salvador: The El Salvadoran government has agreed to receive asylum seekers sent back from the United States. Under the agreement, any asylum seeker who is not a national of El Salvador could be sent back to El Salvador and forced to seek asylum there. 

Agreements with Honduras: In a series of agreements with the Honduras government, the Trump administration has sought to curb migration from the region to the U.S. In an agreement similar to those signed on to by the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador, the U.S. could send asylum seekers back to Honduras if they passed through the country without first seeking asylum there. 

The agreements include a commitment to developing the capacity of the asylum system within these countries, as both El Salvador and Honduras (like Guatemala and Mexico) are incapable of offering the protections to groups who seek asylum in the U.S.—a majority of which are their citizens.  

Agreements with Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador require migrants intending to seek asylum in the U.S. to seek asylum in those countries first, adopting a core element of a safe third country agreement. In cases where the asylum seeker is already on U.S. soil, they will be deported to one of the three countries–but not their country of origin.

The agreements effectively block migrants from accessing the U.S. asylum system, forcing them to seek protection in countries that struggle with high rates of violence and poverty, lack institutions and infrastructure to assist large numbers of refugees, and grapple with severe sociopolitical, economic, and environmental issues. Moreover, many Honduran, El Salvadoran and Guatemalan nationals are fleeing these conditions in their own countries, also hoping to seek asylum in the U.S.

It’s telling that the Trump administration has not called these “safe third country” agreements–a shameful recognition that these countries do not meet the implicit requirements of a safe third country. For example, most of the asylum seekers being sent to Guatemala- including families with children are opting to go back to their countries, often risking their lives but acknowledging that seeking asylum in Guatemala is not safe. 

“Remain in Mexico” policy: Instead of a safe third country agreement with Mexico, the Trump administration has enforced its “Remain in Mexico" policy since January 2019. The policy forces Central Americans seeking asylum to return to Mexico–for an indefinite amount of time–while their claims are processed. The “Remain in Mexico” policy is a clear violation of both U.S. and international law, yet the Supreme Court has allowed it to proceed while its validity is being challenged in the courts. Although the U.S. has not signed an explicit agreement with Mexico, DHS has confirmed that Mexican asylum seekers will also be included in people affected by agreements with other countries. 

“Safe third country” agreements during COVID-19  

Due to COVID-19, the U.S. has temporarily halted the deportation of non-Guatemalan asylum seekers to Guatemala under its “safe third country agreement” with the country This halt came after reports revealed that the U.S. deported dozens of infected migrants to Guatemala. The U.S. is continuing regular deportation flights to Guatemala. 

The agreements with Central American countries tactically move the U.S. border further south.

If all these agreements are implemented as intended, tens of thousands of asylum seekers traveling to the U.S. from the Northern Triangle will be stopped at the southern border of either Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, or Mexico. And people migrating from outside of the Northern Triangle will essentially have to apply for asylum from as far south as the Honduras-Nicaragua border. 

 

These agreements strong arm countries into violating international agreements to protect and treat migrants with dignity. 

The Trump administration made several threats to countries, coercing them to sign on to these agreements. Guatemala signed a “safe third country” agreement after the administration threatened it with tariffs, a travel ban, and a tax on remittances. Before beginning the “Remain in Mexico” program, the administration threatened to impose tariffs on all Mexican goods.

The U.S. and other countries that are party to these agreements could be violating legal obligations under national and international law. That includes the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 and U.N. Refugee Convention, which establishes the principle that refugees should not be forcibly returned to countries where they may be persecuted. 

Advocates are now challenging these agreements in U.S. courts, which have the power to determine whether the Trump’s administration’s actions are lawful. 

You can speak out against these harmful policies.

We must continue to demand that the U.S. welcome migrants with compassion and respect the rights and dignity of all people. Contact Congress today. Urge your members to do all they can to stand with refugees and protect asylum seekers.  

About the Author

Peniel Ibe is the policy engagement coordinator at AFSC’s Office of Public Policy and Advocacy. She leads AFSC’s advocacy efforts to coordinate grassroots engagement strategies to impact policy change. She is an immigrant from Nigeria who recently relocated to the United States and is advocating for the rights of others like her.

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