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  • Acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan attends a news conference in San Salvador, El Salvador August 28, 2019.

    Acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan attends a news conference in San Salvador, El Salvador August 28, 2019. | Photo: Reuters

Published 20 September 2019

Guatemala signed a "safe third country"-type deal that requires asylum seekers to ask for refuge in Guatemala instead of in the United States but it hasn't been congressionally approved.

The United States and El Salvador have reached a joint deal on immigration, the U.S. embassy in El Salvador said on Friday, without giving many additional details beyond those related to asylum claims.

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Acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan is scheduled to discuss the immigration agreement on Friday at a news briefing in Washington, D.C.

"The bottom line of this agreement is asylum. It seeks to recognize El Salvador's development of its own asylum system and its commitment to expand that capacity," said Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Kevin McAleenan, accompanied by Salvadoran Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill during a press conference in Washington.

"President Bukele's goal is not only to stop irregular immigration but to reverse migration, but that has to be done gradually," Hill told reporters. 

A preliminary deal was signed in August, but this agreement formalizes El Salvador being a 'safe' third country. Ironically, El Salvador's murder rate does not indicate the nation is safe, even for its own residents. Its murder rate rose to 51 per 100,000 residents during the first nine months of 2018, exceeded the homicide rates of Honduras and Guatemala.  

This is the latest move by McAleenan to push for bilateral immigration deals with the Northern Triangle countries of Central America—Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—where most immigrants arriving at the U.S. southern border hail from.

In late July, Guatemalan president, Jimmy Morales, signed a "safe third country"-type deal that requires asylum seekers to ask for refuge there instead of in the United States if they travel through the former on the way to the U.S.-Mexico border, however bypassing Guatemala for most migrating Central Americans is virtually impossible if they are making the trek by land.

Guatemala's Congress still has to ratify the deal, and incoming president Alejandro Giammattei isn't sold on the measure that was likely signed because of heavy pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump who threatened major tariffs on the country's imports and remittances back into Guatemala if the nation didn't agree to the White House policy.   

Guatemala is currently the region's heaviest 'sending country' meaning that most Central American refugees are Guatemalan citizens in the first place. Some 230,000 people apprehended by U.S. immigration officials at the border Between January and August of this year were from Guatemala, the largest number out of all Central American countries. Immigration advocates have said that Central American countries, where many people are fleeing from violence, poverty and endemic corruption, do not have the capacity to process more asylum claims and cannot provide a safe environment for vulnerable migrants.

Even though the U.S. State Department admits Guatemala “remains among the most dangerous countries in the world,” with an “alarmingly high murder rate,” on July 16, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a rule that would bar most migrants from gaining U.S. asylum if they had not sought safe haven in a country they transited through first.

A federal court initially blocked the rule from taking effect, but the U.S. Supreme Court on Sept. 11 allowed it to be implemented while litigation against the policy continues.

Separately, Mexico agreed to allow more migrants to wait south of the border while their U.S. immigration cases are resolved, following a Trump threat of across-the-board tariffs on Mexican goods. So far, since late January when this new administration policy known as the "Migrant Protection Protocols” went into effect, more than 42,000 migrants have been sent back to Mexico to wait for U.S. court dates.

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