After Tariff Threat, Trump Says Guatemala Has Agreed to New Asylum Rules

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Friday again sought to block migrants from Central America from seeking asylum, announcing an agreement with Guatemala to require people who travel through that country to seek refuge from persecution there instead of in the United States.

American officials said the agreement could go into effect within weeks, though critics vowed to challenge it in court, saying that Guatemala is itself one of the most dangerous countries in the world — hardly a place of refuge for those fleeing gangs and government violence.

Mr. Trump had been pushing for a way to slow the flow of migrants streaming across the Mexican border and into the United States in recent months. This week, the president had threatened to impose tariffs on Guatemala or to ban all travel from the country if the agreement were not signed.

Joined in the Oval Office by Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart of Guatemala, Mr. Trump said the agreement would end what he has described as a crisis at the border, which has been overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of families fleeing violence and persecution in El Salvador and Honduras.

“These are bad people,” Mr. Trump told reporters after a previously unannounced signing ceremony. He said the agreement would “end widespread abuse of the system and the crippling crisis on our border.”

Officials did not release the text of the agreement or provide many details about how it would be put into practice along the United States border with Mexico. Mr. Trump announced the deal in a Friday afternoon tweet that took Guatemalan politicians and officials at immigration advocacy groups by surprise.

Kevin K. McAleenan, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, described the document signed by the two countries as a “safe-third” agreement that would make migrants ineligible for protection in the United States if they traveled through Guatemala on their way north and did not first apply for asylum there.

Instead of being returned home, however, they would be sent back to Guatemala, which under the agreement would be designated as a safe place for those migrants to live.

“They would be removable, back to Guatemala, if they want to seek an asylum claim,” said Mr. McAleenan, who likened the agreement to similar arrangements in Europe.

The move was the latest in a series of attempts by Mr. Trump to severely limit the ability of refugees to win protection in the United States. A new regulation that would have also banned most asylum seekers was blocked by a judge in San Francisco earlier this week.

But the Trump administration is determined to do everything it can to stop the flow of migrants at the border, which has infuriated the president. Mr. Trump has frequently told his advisers that he sees the border situation as evidence of a failure to make good on his campaign promise to seal the border from dangerous immigrants.

More than 144,200 migrants were taken into custody at the southwest border in May, the highest monthly total in 13 years. Arrests at the border declined by 28 percent in June after efforts in Mexico and the United States to stop migrants from Central America.

The Guatemalan government referred to only opaque details about the agreement on Friday, saying in a statement that it had signed a “cooperation agreement regarding the study of requests for asylum.” The statement referred to an implementation plan for Salvadorans and Hondurans.

By avoiding any mention of a “safe third country” agreement, President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala appeared to be trying to sidestep a recent court ruling blocking him from signing an agreement with the United States without the approval of his country’s congress.

Mr. Morales will leave office in January. One of the candidates running to replace him, conservative Alejandro Giammattei, said that it was “irresponsible” for Mr. Morales to have agreed to an accord without revealing its contents first.

“It is up to the next government to attend to this negotiation,” Mr. Giammattei wrote on Twitter. His opponent, Sandra Torres, had opposed any third safe country agreement when it first appeared that Mr. Morales was preparing to sign one.

Legal groups in the United States said the immediate impact of the agreement will not be clear until the administration releases more details. But based on the descriptions of the agreement, they vowed to ask a judge to block it from going into effect.

“Guatemala can neither offer a safe nor fair and full process, and nobody could plausibly argue otherwise,” said Lee Gelernt, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who argued against other recent efforts to limit asylum. “There’s no way they have the capacity to provide a full and fair procedure, much less a safe one.”

American asylum laws require that virtually all migrants who arrive at the border must be allowed to seek refuge in the United States, but the law allows the government to quickly deport migrants to a country that has signed a “safe third” agreement.

But critics said that the law clearly requires the “safe third” country to be a truly safe place where migrants will not be in danger. And it requires that the country have the ability to provide a “full and fair” system of protections that can accommodate asylum seekers who are sent there. Critics insisted that Guatemala meets neither requirement.

They also noted that the State Department’s own country condition reports on Guatemala warn about rampant gang activity and say that murder is common in the country, which has a police force that is often ineffective at best.

Asked whether Guatemala is a safe country for refugees, Mr. McAleenan said it was unfair to tar an entire country as unsafe, noting that there are also places in the United States which are not safe.

In 2018, the most recent data available, 116,808 migrants apprehended at the border were from Guatemala, while 77,128 were from Honduras and 31,636 were from El Salvador.

“It’s legally ludicrous and totally dangerous,” said Eleanor Acer, the senior director for refugee protection at Human Rights First. “The United States is trying to send people back to a country where their lives would be at risk. It sets a terrible example for the rest of the world.”

Administration officials had traveled to Guatemala in recent months, pushing officials there to sign the agreement, according to an administration official. But negotiations broke down in the past two weeks after Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled that Mr. Morales could not sign the agreement with the United States until legal challenges in that country had been resolved.

The ruling led Mr. Morales to cancel a planned trip in mid-July to sign the agreement, leaving Mr. Trump fuming.

“Now we are looking at the BAN, Tariffs, Remittance Fees, or all of the above,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter on July 23.

Friday’s action appears to suggest that the threats — which provoked concern among Guatemala’s business community about the effect of tariffs — were effective.

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