The Trump administration announced on Friday that it had signed a “safe third country agreement” with Guatemala that would “put human smugglers out of business and provide safety for legitimate asylum seekers.”
According to the White House, the agreement would require migrants from Honduras and El Salvador—two of the three countries in Central America’s Northern Triangle—to apply for asylum protection in Guatemala rather than at the U.S. border, if they pass through Guatemala on their way to the U.S.
Guatemalans and unaccompanied minors are exempt from this requirement, according to a copy of the agreement posted online by the Guatemalan government.
The agreement was signed in the White House on Friday by U.S. acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and Guatemala’s Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart.
“We’ve long been working with Guatemala and now we can do it the right way. It’s going to be terrific for them and terrific for the United States,” Trump said, reading awkwardly from a sheet of paper on his desk. Referring to “smugglers” and human traffickers, Trump ad-libbed, “These are bad people. These are very, very bad, sick, deranged people.”
The announcement capped months of frustrated negotiations between the two governments over a so-called safe third country deal in an attempt to curb migration from Northern Triangle countries to the U.S. That includes a canceled visit to Washington last week by Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales.
Earlier this week, Trump lashed out at Guatemalan officials over the stalling talks. He threatened, via Twitter, to levy new tariffs, including on remittances to Guatemala, a major source of income for that country, and wrote that “Guatemala has not been good.”
In response to Friday’s signing, Morales wrote on social media that Guatemala had managed to “avoid drastic sanctions” designed to “heavily damage the economy,” including new tariffs on Guatemalan exports and tighter immigration restrictions on its citizens.
But there are several problems with this hastily arranged agreement, not the least of which is that it may not be legal according to Guatemalan law. Also, while it says that the U.S. will send asylum-seekers who have passed through Guatemala and have arrived at the U.S. border back to Guatemala, the document lacks any specific details about how this will be carried out and who will pay for it.
The first clue that something was amiss was the fact that the U.S. and Guatemala are describing the agreement in different terms than Trump is. While the White House referred to it as a “safe third country agreement,” both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Guatemalan officials were careful to avoid using that terminology.
DHS called it a “cooperative agreement regarding the examination of protection claims” that would “fundamentally change the flow of irregular migration throughout Central & North America.”
Degenhart, meanwhile, denied shortly after signing the document that it is a “safe third country agreement,” because Hondurans and Salvadorans have the right to free passage in the region as long as they abide by local immigration laws.
Another snag is that Guatemala’s Constitutional Court already has issued three injunctions that prevent the government from formalizing a deal without the approval of Guatemala’s Congress, as the Associated Press noted. Government attorneys are currently analyzing the document, but it’s widely believed that Guatemalan lawmakers would have to approve such an agreement on asylum-seekers, whatever it’s called, and that’s not a sure bet.
As Vox pointed out, Morales leaves office in January, and the two main candidates campaigning to replace him strongly oppose any safe third country agreement with the U.S. That’s a big problem for Trump.
Edgar Gutiérrez, a political analyst and a former foreign minister of Guatemala, told the newspaper el Periódico that, “This agreement cannot be implemented. [Guatemala] lacks the capacity, the institutional capability, the discipline, and the resources to follow through with even the most basic compliance.”
There’s also the question of whether the agreement is legal in the U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said it is “illegal.”
“President Trump’s decision to sign this agreement with Guatemala is cruel and immoral. It is also illegal,” Engel said in a statement. “Simply put, Guatemala is not a safe country for refugees and asylum seekers, as the law requires. It lacks the asylum and protection processes required by U.S. law for negotiation of such an agreement.”
Engel noted that a month ago, he and other lawmakers sent a letter to the Trump administration seeking a briefing on the legality of safe third country agreements with Guatemala and Mexico.
“It’s outrageous that Secretary Pompeo and the State Department ignored our request and moved ahead with the misguided agreement,” Engel said. “The Administration’s refusal to tell Congress its legal rationale speaks volumes. Either they don’t have one or it wouldn’t stand up in court.”
In another statement, Amnesty International’s U.S. advocacy director for the Americas, Charanya Krishnaswami, said that “any attempts to force families and individuals fleeing their home countries to seek safety in Guatemala is outrageous.”
“The United States government knows well that conditions there are dangerous. With high levels of violence and impunity, weak institutions, and an asylum system the United States’ own State Department has noted is deficient, there is no doubt that Guatemala should not be considered a safe place of refuge,” Krishnaswami added.
Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants Rights Project, said, “Congress made clear that the agreement has to provide a safe, fair and full asylum process,” Reuters reported.
Officials say their goal is for the agreement to be implemented in August. It would then be in effect for two years and subject to renewal.
In a separate deal, Degenhart and McAleenan also vowed to expand the U.S. policy of expedited deportation for undocumented Guatemalans across the entirety of the southern U.S. border, el Periódico reported. Guatemala has agreed to provide faster assistance to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in such cases.
Since last October, about 150,000 asylum-seeking families arrived at the U.S. border from Guatemala, according to Vox, citing U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures.