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To the Editor:
In July of 2019, the Guatemalan Interior Minister, Enrique Degenhart, and the acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan, signed an Asylum Cooperative Agreement (ACA), also known as a “safe third country agreement.” This came about after political pressure and threats of economic sanctions from the Trump administration. The ACAs give the U.S. power to transfer asylum-seekers to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador if the transferee is not from the country to which they are sent. The supposed idea is that asylum-seekers should seek asylum in one of these three countries, despite their complete lack of capacity to responsibly process asylum cases and their general unsafe conditions.
A few weeks later, the U.S. signed similar agreements with Honduras and El Salvador. These covert agreements are part of a larger strategy that the Trump administration uses to deny people the right to migrate and apply for asylum. By deporting asylum-seekers to countries they are not from and to places where they may face danger, the U.S. denies them protection and violates international refugee law, including Articles 13, 14, and 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The U.S. signed the ACAs despite the fact that Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are unable to respond to the needs of their own citizens, let alone those of the thousands of asylum-seekers for whom the U.S. is legally responsible. In 2018, 62,000 Salvadorans and Hondurans sought U.S. asylum, and in 2019, the majority of migrants detained at the U.S. southern border were Guatemalan, many of whom are Indigenous. Moreover, this instability is due in large part to the destabilizing nature of U.S. foreign policy in northern Central America, which has promoted violent resource extraction, enabled mass corruption, and further militarized the region.
Additionally, the ACAs either ignore or do very little to address the fact that none of these countries have asylum systems built to address an imposed influx of asylum-seekers. Between November 2019 and March 2020, 939 migrants from Honduras and El Salvador were transferred to Guatemala under the agreement. Of these, 20 people have sought asylum there. The Guatemalan state arbitrarily gave asylum-seekers 72 hours to decide if they will seek refuge in Guatemala, a policy that effectively compels people to abandon their asylum claims.
Due to the pandemic, on March 17th the Guatemalan government announced a temporary suspension of the ACAs. This suspension has not terminated the agreements with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, and transfers are scheduled to resume as soon as “sanitary protocols are established.” At the same time, similar human rights violations have continued through ongoing standard deportations of migrants and expulsions of asylum-seekers under DHS’s implementation of the CDC border rule. Between March and October 2020, 63,000 people were deported and 140,000 asylum-seekers were expelled, mostly to Mexico or the countries from which they fled. 8,000 of the expelled asylum-seekers were unaccompanied minors. These deportations and expulsions not only violate due process and legal protections for migrants and asylum-seekers, they also are exporting COVID-19 to countries with crumbling medical infrastructures.
We must demand that Congress defund the agreements, demand more information about the signing and implementation of them, and take a stand against the agreements as a threat to safety, human dignity, and Central American sovereignty. We must also demand that they immediately stop deportations, expulsions, and detention during the pandemic. To learn more about this campaign, please visit bit.ly/nosafethird.