The Trump administration has concieved a program to send some asylum seekers encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border to Guatemala, a move that promises to transform the U.S. asylum system, according to three officials briefed on the initiative and related training materials.
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This new effort began after the Trump administration brokered an agreement with the Guatemalan government in July. The deal will allow U.S. immigration officials to force migrants requesting asylum at the U.S.-Mexican border to apply for asylum in Guatemala first.
The Reuters News Agency reported that initially it will be applied at a U.S. Border Patrol station in El Paso, Texas. The first phase will target adults from Honduras and El Salvador and the aim will be to process them within 72 hours, according to the three officials and notes taken by one of the officials during a training session of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum officers.
Chad Wolf, the acting Secretary of Homeland Security, which oversees USCIS, told reporters in El Paso that the agreement with Guatemala would be implemented “very soon.” He also expressed that the Central American country was setting up reception centers to process the migrants, and that they were working together on finalizing an implementation plan.
USCIS outlined the guidelines in a training session in Arlington, Virginia, on Tuesday, according to the officials. Asylum officers were instructed not to ask migrants whether they have a fear of being sent to Guatemala. Instead, the migrants must affirmatively state a fear of being sent back.
Democrats and pro-migrant groups have opposed the move and contend asylum seekers will face danger in Guatemala, where the murder rate is five times that of the United States, according to 2017 data compiled by the World Bank. Guatemalan President-elect Alejandro Giammattei, who takes office in January, has said he will review the agreement.
Trump has made cracking down on immigration a central issue of his 2020 re-election campaign. His administration has worked to restrict asylum access in an effort to tame the number of mostly Central American families arriving at the southern border.
Trump and his top officials have argued that most migrants travel to the United States for economic reasons and lack valid claims to protection.