The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump threatens Guatemala after it backs away from ‘safe third country’ asylum deal

President Trump. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump threatened Guatemala with tariffs and other retaliation Tuesday for backing away from talks on its potential designation as a safe third country for asylum seekers on their way north, a move that would have allowed the United States to push more migrants away from the southern border.

Trump attacked Guatemala on Twitter and in public remarks for postponing a visit that President Jimmy Morales had planned to make to Washington last week. The day before Morales was expected to meet Trump and sign a “safe third country” agreement, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court said the accord would require approval from the country’s Congress.

The dispute pits the United States against an impoverished Central American country that Trump is trying to enlist in his effort to cut migration to the U.S. border in the Southwest.

Guatemala is the largest source of irregular migrants surrendering at the border. Advocates say many are escaping violence, drought and an economy ravaged by crashing coffee prices. U.S. officials contend that Central American migrants are largely economic refugees who are filing asylum claims so they can work in the United States, and are not actually fleeing for their lives. 

Persuading Guatemala and other countries to accept some migrants could broaden the Trump administration’s powers to deny asylum to a wider range of migrants from around the world.

Under a safe-third-country agreement, an asylum seeker from Honduras who set out for the United States through Guatemala and Mexico, for example, would be directed first to seek protection in one of those countries.

“They announced they can’t do it because they’ve got a supreme court ruling,” Trump told a gathering of conservative students in Washington. “Their supreme court, right? In other words, they didn’t want to sign it.”

“So we’re going to do either tariffs, or we’re going to do a form of tax, or we’re going to use our ban. People don’t realize, we won the ban,” he said.

Those comments echoed tweets earlier in the day in which Trump accused Guatemala of “forming Caravans and sending large numbers of people, some with criminal records, to the United States.”

The White House did not respond to a question about what a “ban” would entail. Trump appeared to be referring to the travel ban issued early in his tenure that prompted several legal challenges but eventually was upheld by the Supreme Court.

The justices ruled that a president has the authority to ban travelers from certain countries if the president thinks it is necessary to protect the United States. The Department of Homeland Security has argued that a surge of migrants is a national security threat.

The Guatemalan president’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Trump’s threats. But Morales, on his Facebook page, blasted his country’s Constitutional Court, saying it had put the country’s good relations with the United States at risk.

“Sadly, the Constitutional Court, without any knowledge or right to get involved in foreign policy, erroneously assumed a negative position toward our national interests,” he wrote. 

He alleged that the judges were influenced by politicians, including several former foreign ministers who had criticized the accord. Later Tuesday, the Guatemalan government said its efforts to curb irregular migration had been “continuously frustrated by people interested in destabilizing the country.” The statement said the government would challenge the court ruling. 

Any U.S. retaliatory measures could have severe consequences for the economy of the Central American nation of 17 million. The United States is Guatemala’s top trading partner, and Guatemala relies on money that immigrants send home from the United States.

The president also suggested he might impose “fees” on the remittances that Guatemalans send to their relatives back home.

Those remittances account for nearly 13 percent of the country’s economy, up from 9.7 percent five years ago. More than $10.3 billion is expected to flow back to Guatemala this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, with most of the money originating in the United States.

“Guatemala is vulnerable economically, commercially and financially with regard to the United States,” said Steve McFarland, a former U.S. ambassador to the country.

Merchandise trade between the two countries totaled a modest $10.8 billion last year, according to the Census Bureau. Though Trump routinely complains about the yawning U.S. trade deficit with commercial partners such as China and the European Union, the United States enjoyed a $2.4 billion surplus in its goods trade with Guatemala last year.

U.S. companies ship mineral fuels, machinery, corn and soybeans to Guatemala. Americans receive bananas, coffee, apparel and fresh vegetables in return.

Because Guatemala is party to a 2006 regional trade deal with the United States, Trump could impose new tariffs on the country’s goods by invoking the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, according to William Reinsch, a former Commerce Department official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“If he wants to declare an emergency, he can do pretty much whatever he wants,” Reinsch said.

El Salvador’s new president says migrant problem ‘starts with us’

The potential safe-third-country agreement has been widely criticized in Guatemala. Analysts and politicians say the country lacks the resources to receive and process thousands of migrants.

The World Bank reports that Guatemala’s economy has posted strong annual growth in recent years, but nearly 60 percent of the nation’s residents were in poverty in 2014. Rural and indigenous peoples experience some of the region’s “worst poverty, malnutrition and maternal-child mortality rates,” the bank said.

Opposition politicians lashed out Tuesday at Morales, saying he had invited the threats by promoting the potential agreement. 

“Look how Morales’s personal alliance with Trump has ended up: in a fiasco that will cost the country, with the threat of taxes on remittances and additional tariffs on exports to the U.S.,” said Manfredo Marroquín, an anti-corruption candidate who ran for Guatemalan president but did not make the final round of the vote, scheduled for Aug. 11.

U.S. and Guatemalan officials have continued to discuss other steps to reduce the flow of migrants toward the United States.

In Guatemala, ballot battles have overshadowed policy debate

Morales, a conservative from a party with strong military ties, has worked to build a good relationship with Trump. After the U.S. president recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, provoking a storm of protest globally, Guatemala quickly followed suit, earning thanks from Trump.

During the past two years, Morales lobbied Washington to soften its support for a U.N.-backed anticorruption commission known as CICIG, which was investigating the Guatemalan leader for alleged campaign finance violations. (Morales says he is innocent.)

The commission traditionally has received strong support from Washington, but the Trump administration has been largely silent as Morales has moved to shut it down.

Nonetheless, Trump has been highly critical of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in recent months, asserting that the nations have done too little to stop migrants from leaving for the United States. He has accused the governments of encouraging the caravans of migrants that crossed Mexico to reach the U.S. border last year. The governments have denied the allegation.

The Mexican government also has pushed back against the idea that it would become a safe third country for asylum seekers. Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign minister, has said that Mexico’s National Congress would need to approve any such agreement. This week, he said there was no need to consider such a deal because Mexico has dramatically stepped up its efforts to stop migrants transiting the country.

Mexico instead has supported Trump’s policy of having asylum seekers stay in Mexico while they await their U.S. court hearings, a program known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or Remain in Mexico. That policy, which has expanded in recent weeks, faces a federal court challenge in California.

Sheridan reported from Mexico City.