Asylum deal at the fore as Guatemalan president visits White House

FAN Editor
Guatemala's President Jimmy Morales gestures after a meeting with acting Secretary of U.S. Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan, unseen in Guatemala City
FILE PHOTO: Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales gestures after a meeting with acting Secretary of U.S. Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan, unseen in Guatemala City, Guatemala May 27, 2019. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

July 11, 2019

By Sofia Menchu

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) – Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales will travel to Washington next week to discuss migration, and sources said he may sign an agreement declaring the Central American country a safe destination for asylum seekers.

Morales will visit President Donald Trump at the White House on Monday, and “meet with U.S. Government officials to address security, migration and economic issues,” the Guatemalan government said in a statement on Twitter on Thursday.

A U.S. government source briefed on the matter and a Guatemalan presidential source, speaking on condition of anonymity, both said Morales may sign the asylum agreement with Trump on Monday. Both emphasized that some details were still being finalized, after weeks of intense negotiation.

White House officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Guatemalan presidential spokesman Alfredo Brito said he did not have more details of the trip.

Trump said on June 26 that the United States and Guatemala were close to reaching a “safe third-country agreement” as part of efforts to curb U.S.-bound migration from Central America.

Under such an agreement, Guatemala would be obliged to process asylum claims from migrants who entered its territory en route to the United States. Migrants from Honduras and El Salvador heading to the U.S.-Mexican border overland usually cross into Mexico via Guatemala.

The poor country of 17 million people has its own problems with gang violence and a weak justice system. Large numbers of Guatemalans have sought refuge in the United States, leading civil rights groups to warn it is not a safe destination for asylum seekers.

Guatemala has one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America, according to United Nations data.

“This agreement would be an egregious violation of law and common decency,” Refugees International President Eric Schwartz said on Thursday. Guatemala’s lack of security could trap migrants escaping violence in El Salvador and Honduras in a situation similar to the one they are trying to flee, he said.

Guatemalans claiming asylum in the United States outnumbered those from Honduras and El Salvador in 2017, according to data available from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The apprehension by U.S. authorities of Central American migrants, including large numbers of families and asylum seekers, reached a more than decade high in May. Trump has applied increasing pressure on Mexico and Central America to stem the flows.

Declaring Guatemala a safe third country would require changes to its immigration laws.

Cracking down on immigration has been a long-standing priority for Trump. In June, he moved to cut U.S. aid to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras over the rise in migration numbers, but added that Guatemala “is much different than it was under past administrations.”

(Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Additional reporting by David Shepardson, Lizbeth Diaz and Roberta Rampton; additional reporting and writing by Rebekah F Ward; editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Sonya Hepinstall, Rosalba O’Brien and Jonathan Oatis)

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