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DJ Biden Withdraws From Trump's Agreements to Send Asylum Seekers to Central America -- Update

· 02/06/2021 20:04
By Michelle Hackman and José de Córdoba

President Biden is ending agreements signed by the Trump administration that allowed the government to send some people seeking asylum in the U.S. to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the State Department said Saturday.

One agreement, signed with Guatemala in 2019, allowed the U.S. to send asylum seekers from El Salvador and Honduras who crossed the U.S. southern border to Guatemala, where they were told to ask for humanitarian protection instead. Similar agreements, signed the same year with El Salvador and Honduras, were never implemented.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. withdrawal was meant to "establish a cooperative, mutually respectful approach to managing migration across the region" as well as to provide a "safe and orderly processing of asylum seekers at the U.S. border."

The cancellation of the agreements is an important step in Mr. Biden's effort to undo much of the Trump administration's immigration policy. Administration officials say the changes will result in a more humane migration system. But officials worry that if not done correctly, the changes could spur a surge of immigrants from the region which was hit hard last year by the coronavirus pandemic and two disastrous hurricanes. Such a surge, analysts say, could create a crisis for the Biden administration as it pushes to implement its program.

Mr. Blinken underscored that the end of the agreements didn't mean the U.S. had opened its borders. "The United States is a country with borders and laws that must be enforced," Mr. Blinken said. He reiterated warnings made recently by other U.S. officials that people attempting to reach the U.S. through irregular means were risking their lives on what is often a very dangerous journey.

At the time the agreements were signed, the Trump administration said 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 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 their own citizens. The agreements were seen as a key part of the Trump administration's strategy to enlist Mexico and Central American countries in sharing the burden of migrants across the region.

"These agreements were never consistent with the minimum standards of humanitarian protection, so it makes sense for the Biden administration to cancel them," said Andrew Selee, the president of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. "It remains to be seen what the new architecture of shared responsibility in the region will look like."

Mr. Selee said the risk for Mr. Biden was that it was giving up the tools used by the Trump administration to contain migration without yet having in place a new set of tools. "And that creates a risk of increased irregular flows in the meantime," he said.

In a statement Friday, 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 06, 2021 20:04 ET (01:04 GMT)

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