The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Guatemala’s migrant pact with the U.S. threatens to unleash a political crisis

A man stuck a poster showing a cartoon of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales with the word “traitor” in front of the Constitutional Court in Guatemala City on Friday. The Trump administration signed an agreement with Guatemala to restrict asylum applications to the United States from Central America.
A man stuck a poster showing a cartoon of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales with the word “traitor” in front of the Constitutional Court in Guatemala City on Friday. The Trump administration signed an agreement with Guatemala to restrict asylum applications to the United States from Central America. (Oliver De Ros/AP)

MEXICO CITY — In pressuring Guatemala to accept a deal to absorb vast numbers of asylum seekers, the Trump administration has embarked on a dramatic and risky strategy to slash the number of Central Americans flooding the U.S. border.

The accord — which was negotiated in secret and signed at the White House on Friday — could plunge Guatemala’s young democracy into a constitutional crisis, analysts warn. It could also saddle one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries with tens of thousands of Salvadoran and Honduran migrants who would be barred from making their claims in the United States.

The agreement is one of the boldest steps yet taken by President Trump to stanch the flow of migrants to the U.S. border. It aims to close off the U.S. asylum system to the migrants who have crossed through Guatemala en route to the United States. They would instead have to seek protection in Guatemala. 

But the agreement is built on a fragile political and legal base. The Guatemalan Constitutional Court ruled earlier this month that President Jimmy Morales needed approval from the Guatemalan Congress to sign the accord, something he has not received. Morales has sharply criticized the court decision, saying Friday that “as far as we understand, this doesn’t have to go before Congress.”

Some analysts said Morales could get around the ruling with his argument that the deal is simply a cooperation agreement, not a treaty. Others note Morales has at times simply shrugged off court rulings he dislikes.

“This leaves a legacy we won’t be able to recover from, that the country’s constitution can be flagrantly violated without any kind of reaction or penalty,” said Renzo Rosal, an independent political consultant. 

The agreement is also likely to be challenged in U.S. courts by opponents who say Guatemala does not qualify as a “safe” country, because of high levels of violence

Whatever happens with the courts, the agreement has little political support in Guatemala. Morales, who finishes his four-year term in January, is highly unpopular. Among the top Twitter hashtags in Guatemala in recent days has been #Jimmy­vendepatrias — Jimmy the sellout — as a dig at the country’s leader. 

Guatemalans were startled by a widely published photo showing their government minister, Enrique Degenhart, signing the agreement as Trump loomed over his shoulder, an image suggesting the Central American country’s submission. 

On Saturday, hundreds of people demonstrated in front of the presidential palace in Guatemala City to protest the agreement, the Associated Press reported. Protesters carried Guatemalan flags and called for Morales’s resignation.

Guatemalan analysts have suggested Morales made the deal with Trump in hopes of winning support from the U.S. government. Morales faces allegations of financial crimes related to his 2015 electoral campaign but has been shielded by presidential immunity, which he loses in January. He says he is innocent.

Morales said the agreement would help Guatemala by “putting us in a privileged position” with the country’s top trading partner and most important ally.

Guatemala holds a runoff presidential election on Aug. 11, and both candidates have criticized Morales’s negotiation of such a broad agreement in secret.

The accord “is unlikely to be sustainable,” Stephen McFarland, a former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, wrote in a tweet on the eve of the agreement’s unveiling. “A bitter U.S. ‘win’ would put at risk U.S. goals in democracy and law enforcement with the current and next governments.”

While the next Guatemalan government could cancel the deal, it would face intense pressure from the Trump administration to not do so. Morales’s government signed the pact after Trump threatened severe penalties on Guatemala — tariffs, a travel ban or taxes on the billions of dollars in remittances sent home by migrants in the United States. Kevin McAleenan, the acting Homeland Security secretary, said the administration plans to start the “safe third country” program with Guatemala in August. 

Human rights groups, Democratic lawmakers and immigration experts have said Guatemala is too poor and underdeveloped to handle a flood of asylum applicants. Last year, Salvadoran and Honduran migrants filed nearly 58,000 applications for asylum in the United States. That year, Guatemala received just 259 asylum applications overall.

Guatemala is the top source of irregular migration to the United States, with citizens fleeing poverty, violence, drought and low coffee prices. Eric Schwartz, head of Refugees International and a former top refugee official at the U.S. State Department, said in a statement that the pact “would represent a grotesque violation of both U.S. law and human decency” and “would put at risk the lives of thousands of Central Americans.” 

Sonia Lucia Valenzuela, a constitutional law expert in Guatemala, said the Constitutional Court ruling was clear in instructing Morales to send the agreement to Congress but that political pressures could determine what happens next. The migration agreement has been strongly supported by Guatemala’s influential business groups, who had feared U.S. tariffs. But many current and former politicians oppose it.

“If the opposition to this accord continues, that’s a sign this will escalate,” she said.