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Guatemala says it’s working with the United States to tighten borders, break up migrant caravans

Hundreds of Central American migrants walk together on a Mexican highway after crossing the border from Guatemala near Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, on Wednesday. State and local police provided a security escort.
Hundreds of Central American migrants walk together on a Mexican highway after crossing the border from Guatemala near Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, on Wednesday. State and local police provided a security escort. (Marco Ugarte/AP)

Guatemala is working with the United States to reduce the flow of migrants through the country, its interior minister said Wednesday, with plans to renegotiate a regional open-borders agreement, break up migrant caravans and subject families to DNA testing.

The moves are the strongest yet announced by a Central American government to deter migration during the current surge to the U.S. southwest border. Guatemala is the single largest source of unauthorized migrants to the United States.

Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart told The Washington Post that officials are working with attorneys from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to revise its agreement on border control with its Central American neighbors. 

He said the CA-4 agreement, which allows citizens of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua to move freely throughout the region, has made it easier for migrants to travel through Guatemala on their way to the United States.

“For us, caravans are a criminal way of moving or trafficking or smuggling people through our territory,” he said.

Degenhart said he was working with Homeland Security, which is dispatching dozens of agents to Guatemala, “to eventually confront those caravans.”

Homeland Security officials did not comment.

The United States took more than 144,000 migrants into custody in May, Customs and Border Protection said Wednesday, a 32 percent jump from April and the highest monthly total in 13 years.

Several hundred migrants from Honduras and El Salvador crossed the border from Guatemala to Mexico on Wednesday morning with plans to continue to the U.S. border.

President Trump has accused Guatemala of not doing enough to combat migration. In late March, he directed his administration to cancel aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

It is unclear whether the directive has been implemented.

Officials in Central America have historically been reluctant to publicly endorse American efforts against migration, in part because their economies rely on the remittances sent home by their citizens abroad. In 2018, Guatemala received $9.3 billion in remittances, almost all of it from Guatemalans in the United States. 

But Guatemala now appears eager to position itself as the Trump administration’s most willing partner in the region, expressing an openness to programs that no other Central American country has accepted. More than 132,000 Guatemalans were apprehended at the U.S. border between October and March, more than any other nationality.

U.S. officials said last week that Homeland Security would send dozens of agents and inspectors to Guatemala to work as advisers to its national police and migration authorities.

The advisers will work to disrupt and interdict human smuggling operations in the hope of cutting off popular routes to the United States and deterring migrants from beginning their journeys north, officials said.

Acting DHS secretary Kevin McAleenan finalized the agreement with Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and other top officials during meetings last week in Guatemala City.

Degenhart said Guatemala planned to implement DNA testing for Guatemalans leaving the country through its northern border “in the very near future.” The goal, he said, was to ensure that migrants were not traveling with children who were not their own.

In some cases, migrants have attempted to travel with the children of friends or neighbors to take advantage of a loophole in the U.S. immigration system that allows families to avoid detention and swift deportation.

Degenhart said the Department of Homeland Security was helping the Guatemalan government launch a family fraud unit to stop such arrangements before the children leave Guatemala.

Aside from the border enforcement and anti-trafficking efforts, Degenhart said his government will also mount a campaign to convince Guatemalans not to migrate with their children.

“We need families to understand the kind of threat that they are putting their children in,” he said.

Five Guatemalan children have died after crossing the border since December.

Still, he recognized that there was a limit to what he could do to keep Guatemalans from migrating.

“Constitutionally speaking, we can’t stop them from leaving the country.”

He blamed Mexico for not doing enough to stop migrants — including Guatemalans — from transiting through the country en route to the United States.

“They’re offering visas, they’re offering all sorts of administrative benefits to Guatemalans,” Degenhart said.

“The pull factor that Mexico generates for the whole region is one of the main causes in the increase in irregular migration,” he said.

The Mexican Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump has threatened to impose new tariffs on Mexican imports to the United States if Mexico does not do more to stop migrants from reaching the U.S. border. 

Mexican officials were in Washington on Wednesday to negotiate with their U.S. counterparts.

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