GUATEMALA CITY — Five days after signing a major new asylum agreement with the Guatemalan government, the acting U.S. homeland security secretary, Kevin McAleenan, arrived here this week to sell it to a skeptical public. While President Trump had wielded threats in a push to secure the deal, McAleenan came with carrots.
Under the broad outlines of the accord, the Trump administration plans to bounce a large number of asylum seekers from Honduras and El Salvador back to Guatemala, instead of processing their claims in overwhelmed U.S. immigration courts. Guatemala’s deeply unpopular government acquiesced to the pact last month after Trump said he would institute tariffs, fees and travel restrictions that could have sent the Central American country into ruin.
McAleenan arrived with a sunnier message, telling reporters, business leaders and prominent Guatemalans that the deal will transform the country’s relationship with the United States, bringing more work visas, investment and tens of millions of dollars in U.S. financial aid.
He also tried to assuage fears that the United States will foist thousands of foreign returnees on a country with little ability to process them, care for them or provide them protection. McAleenan told them the plan, if approved, would start slowly.
McAleenan said the program would start with the “least vulnerable” groups, meaning single adults, not children. And those who claim fear would still be eligible for withholding of removal, a lesser form of protection than full asylum.
“We’re working on the details,” he said in an interview, “and ensuring that the Guatemalans understand that we’re talking about a phased and measured approach to implementation that will not overwhelm Guatemalan resources and will be supported by U.S.-funded international organization capacity.”
The trip highlighted the extraordinary and unconventional efforts the Trump administration is making in its attempt to curtail a record-breaking surge of Central American migrant families and children into the United States. Since Oct. 1, U.S. agents have taken more than 850,000 border-crossers into custody, the biggest migration wave in more than a decade.
Many of the migrants express a fear of return to their home countries, often the first step toward filing an asylum claim that prevents a prolonged detention or swift deportation out of the United States. Trump, McAleenan and other U.S. officials say the majority of those seeking asylum are not really in any danger in their homelands and instead are economic migrants who are trying to take advantage of U.S. humanitarian programs to gain easy entry to the country as they seek work and better pay.
The Trump administration is prepared to spend $40 million to build up Guatemala’s ability to create an asylum system — case workers, shelters and so forth — for those who truly need protection, U.S. officials said this week. It was the first time they have placed a dollar amount on the financial component of the deal.
McAleenan said he wants regional asylum policies to align, allowing “people to be protected” while also expanding capacity for asylum in other countries, “as close to their home as possible.” He said he also wants to “address the situation where migrants are moving in the hands of smugglers across multiple borders to try to get to a destination country.”
But McAleenan also has told Guatemala that U.S. officials believe most Salvadorans and Hondurans will not stay in the country and will simply return home if forced away from the United States. He and other Department of Homeland Security officials predict the return-to-Guatemala plan will have a significant deterrent effect once the first few planeloads arrive, dispelling the widespread perception in Central America that those who reach the U.S. border with a child are allowed to stay indefinitely.
Guatemalan asylum seekers who reach the U.S. border would be exempt from the policy, because international treaties and U.S. laws protect those seeking safe refuge from being deported back to the countries from which they have fled persecution.
In that regard, the program could work in practice like a backdoor deportation mechanism for Hondurans and Salvadorans and an alternative to releasing them into the interior of the United States. The Trump administration would continue to send Guatemalan asylum seekers who cross the border back to Mexico to await processing there under the program the administration calls the Migrant Protection Protocols, adding to a growing patchwork of novel bureaucratic and legal barriers.
In effect, it would allow the United States to turn almost anyone away from the southern border.
Mexico agreed in its June 7 accord with Trump to allow the MPP to expand and vowed to work on a regional asylum overhaul plan, but President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has insisted he does not want his nation to enter into a “Safe Third Country” accord that would force Mexico to accept all U.S.-bound asylum seekers.
The United States has sought the deal with Guatemala in part to assure Mexico that no single country would carry the burden alone.
In his meetings here, McAleenan told Guatemalans their government’s new deal is part of a multistage plan to transform the way asylum seekers are treated across the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. government has been in negotiations with Brazil, Panama, Honduras and El Salvador, he said.
“You have to have partnerships between the source, transit and destination countries,” McAleenan said. He also noted that under existing Central American treaties, the citizens of member states have broad ability to relocate and seek residency in neighboring countries, which would not require formal asylum claims.
U.S. officials in Guatemala this week made clear the Trump administration views immigration cooperation as a condition for other forms of assistance. Trump has frozen more than $150 million in funds to Guatemala that would be released if the asylum accord moves forward. The potential economic damage from the types of punitive measures Trump has threatened would have a potentially devastating and destabilizing impact here, where existing economic struggles have led to a growing population exodus, especially in rural areas.
But several major obstacles to the asylum deal remain, and its prospects for implementation have been hampered by the perception that Trump imposed the deal on outgoing president Jimmy Morales, whose popularity is in the low double digits.
That has left the United States lacking a powerful, credible political partner in Guatemala who could persuade the public to embrace the deal.
Guatemala’s presidential runoff election is scheduled for Aug. 11, and both candidates have criticized the Morales administration for agreeing to the pact and for failing to explain how it will work. McAleenan met privately Wednesday night with Sandra Torres, the center-left candidate. Guatemala’s highest court ruled last month that the nation’s congress must approve any such accord for it to take effect, and a vote has yet to be scheduled.
“We have an election here in 10 days, but the thing everyone is talking about here right now is this deal,” said Juan Carlos Tefel, president of Guatemala’s leading business association. McAleenan’s trip has dominated local media coverage, he said.
Trump’s threats badly spooked Guatemalan business leaders, Tefel said. In one example, he said Home Depot recently balked at a deal it was considering to source parts from Guatemala, worried about potential U.S. tariffs.
Tefel said he thought McAleenan’s assurances would help begin boosting support for the deal, but the lack of details in the past several days allowed critics to depict it harshly. Guatemala’s congress would eventually give approval, he said, but he predicted it could take several months — far slower than the fast-track timeline U.S. officials are seeking as they gird for a potential rebound in border crossings after the hot summer months.
The willingness of U.N. migration authorities to help the Trump administration execute its Guatemala plan also is shaky. Relations between the Guatemalan government and U.N. officials remain badly strained after Morales’s decision to expel a widely praised U.N. anti-corruption program as prosecutors were investigating members of the president’s family.
There also are major doubts about Guatemala’s ability to protect those who truly need safe refuge, given the country’s relatively high crime rate and the ease with which criminal organizations from Hondurans and El Salvador would be able to cross into the country to hunt down targets.
Eduardo Stein, a former vice president and Guatemalan diplomat, told McAleenan and other U.S. officials in a small meeting at the U.S. ambassador’s mansion that the arrival of a large number of Salvadorans and Hondurans could “deteriorate into an even worse humanitarian situation” and that Guatemala would have no way to prevent them from heading north toward the U.S. border again.
Guatemalan business tycoon and radio host Dionisio Gutiérrez told McAleenan it would take generations to fix the structural problems and endemic poverty driving so many of his compatriots to flee. But he said the accord with the United States was a “wake-up call” to the Guatemalan elite, which long has relied on emigration to compensate for a lack of jobs and opportunity, as those earning better livings in the diaspora send money back home.
“We can’t continue to have an economy built on family remittances,” he said.
Gutiérrez said he did not believe either of the presidential candidates would improve things, then told the U.S. officials in the room he might need to seek asylum in the United States himself because he had been receiving threats for his outspoken criticisms.
It was not entirely clear whether he was joking.