Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, traveled to El Salvador this week to finalize implementation plans for the agreement. Under the accord, “certain migrants requesting asylum or similar humanitarian protection at the U.S. border will be transferred to El Salvador to seek protection in El Salvador,” DHS said in a statement.
Homeland security officials have insisted their intent is not to use the agreements to discourage vulnerable migrants from coming to the United States to find a safe place, but to allow them to reach safety closer to their home countries. In a statement, Wolf called the agreement “a critical step in the establishment of a truly regional approach to migration, and, more specifically, to the offer of protection to those migrants who are victims of persecution.”
El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have some of the highest homicide rates in the world, and transnational gangs and criminal groups that operate in all three countries practice extortion, forced recruitment of minors and human trafficking to terrorize local populations, sending victims fleeing for their lives.
Under Bukele, El Salvador’s murder rate has dropped, but his government’s heavy hand and crackdown on dissent has raised concerns about creeping authoritarian rule.
“Implementation of the ACA will involve and facilitate cooperation between the two governments to expand El Salvador’s systems for offering humanitarian protections,” DHS said.
A report by Refugees International and Human Rights Watch found extensive problems with the implementation of the agreement in Guatemala, where the United States sent nearly 1,000 asylum seekers between November 2019 and March 2020. Just 2 percent of the migrants who were returned to Guatemala applied to seek asylum there, with the rest apparently giving up and going home, according to the report.
Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris has criticized the agreements with Central American countries. President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its plans, but Biden’s detailed policy agenda for Central America makes no specific mention of canceling the accords.
Instead, Biden’s plans echo some of the same statements the Trump administration has made about allowing migrants to seek protection without undertaking the dangerous journey to the United States.
Biden’s Central America plan also calls for the restoration of an Obama-era program — canceled by Trump — that allowed U.S. embassies in the region to process requests for asylum from Central American minors. Notably, Biden’s plan also says his administration will “expand efforts to register and process refugees in the region for resettlement in the U.S. and other countries,” an indication that the incoming administration might look to keep the asylum agreements at least partly in place.