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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 endanger the lives of thousands of people fleeing violence and poverty in the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) region and other countries. 

The administration issued an interim final rule to implement the agreements with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in late November. The U.S. has begun deporting Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers to Guatemala and, in the coming weeks, intends to begin deporting asylum seekers to Honduras. 

Here's what you need to know:

What is a "safe third country" agreement?

This is an agreement between two countries 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.

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. For example, the 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. 

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 of origin, often risking their lives but acknowledging that seeking asylum in Guatemala is not safe. 

Although the U.S. has not signed an explicit agreement with Mexico, DHS has confirmed that Mexican asylum seekers will also be among those affected by these policies. Instead of a safe third country agreement with Mexico, the Trump administration has enforced its inhumane “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.  

Under the policy, the U.S. has forced more than 50,000 migrants from varying parts of the world into the care of the under-equipped Mexican government, where they are vulnerable to kidnapping, trafficking, theft, and other forms of violence. Almost none have access to legal help with their claims. The “Remain in Mexico” policy is a clear violation of both U.S. and international law and is now being challenged in the courts.  

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

The exact terms of these agreements with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are still unclear, and it is uncertain whether they will all be implemented in all countries. For example, even though the Guatemala government has signed an agreement, the Guatemala Supreme court has blocked it for now. Yet, in the fall of 2019, the U.S. government deported its first asylum seeker under this agreement to Guatemala–a Honduran.  

If all these agreements are implemented, 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.