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DJ Biden Withdraws From Trump's Agreement to Send Asylum Seekers to Guatemala

· 02/05/2021 21:19
By Michelle Hackman and José de Córdoba

President Biden has withdrawn from a Trump administration agreement with Guatemala to send asylum seekers to the Central American country, the Guatemalan government said Friday.

The pact, signed by the Trump administration in July 2019, allowed the U.S. government to send asylum seekers at the southern border to Guatemala, where they were told to ask for humanitarian protection instead.

The State Department didn't return a request for comment.

The Trump administration said at the time that asylum seekers -- many of whom pass through more than one country before reaching the U.S. border -- should first try to make claims for protection in those countries.

The Trump administration signed similar agreements with El Salvador and Honduras later in 2019 as part of its strategy to enlist Mexico and Central American countries in sharing the burden of migrants across the region.

The agreements were criticized by human-rights organizations, who say they make false promises of protection by sending asylum seekers to countries with nascent or nonexistent asylum systems and little ability to protect even its own citizens.

In a statement, the Guatemalan government said it welcomed the Biden administration's decision. Guatemala said it would continue to work closely with the U.S. to meet the challenges posed by illegal migration, promote economic development, and protect the rights of migrants, especially of children.

The country also warned its people not to "risk their health, wealth and lives" to undertake the dangerous trip to the U.S. The government urged Guatemalans not to listen to smugglers who promote illegal migration and falsely claim that the presence of minors will guarantee entrance into the U.S.

The Biden administration had signaled earlier this week in an executive order that it likely would exit all three agreements, though it hasn't specified a timeline for doing so. It couldn't be determined whether the U.S. has terminated the agreements with El Salvador and Honduras.

Asylum is a legal protection that anyone can seek if they are fleeing political, religious or other persecution in their home countries. Though crossing the border without permission is illegal, U.S. law allows foreigners to apply for asylum no matter how they entered the country. Most people who ask for asylum in the U.S. ultimately lose their cases, according to Justice Department data.

The pact with Guatemala was the only one to take effect, from November 2019 through March 2020, when it was paused because of the pandemic. In that time, a spokeswoman for the Guatemalan migration institute said the country had received a total of 579 Hondurans and 360 Salvadorans who had originally sought asylum in the U.S.

Of the people sent back, only 20 requested asylum in Guatemala, the spokeswoman said. Of those, not one has been granted asylum, according to a report published by Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Before the deals with the Central American countries, the U.S. had just one "safe third country" agreement with Canada, which requires asylum seekers to make their claims in whichever country they enter first. Last summer, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled the agreement was unconstitutional, rebuking the U.S. asylum system for jailing applicants while their claims are pending.

El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are among the poorest and most violence-prone countries in the region, with virtually nonexistent asylum processes. Mexico, which is also riven by violence, has seen large increases in asylum requests in recent years from countries including Honduras, Venezuela, Haiti and Cuba. In 2019, it received a record high of more than 67,000 asylum applications, according to Mexico's refugee agency.

Write to Michelle Hackman at Michelle.Hackman@wsj.com and José de Córdoba at jose.decordoba@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 05, 2021 21:19 ET (02:19 GMT)

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