Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Can Guatemala Really Be a Safe Third Country?

U.S. President Donald Trump on July 26 oversaw the signing of a “safe third country” agreement between the United States and Guatemala. // Photo: White House. U.S. President Donald Trump on July 26 oversaw the signing of a “safe third country” agreement between the United States and Guatemala. // Photo: White House.

The United States and Guatemala on July 26 signed a controversial “safe third country” agreement, which will require migrants transiting the Central American country to apply for asylum there rather than continuing to the United States. The agreement followed a Guatemalan Constitutional Court ruling that barred President Jimmy Morales’ government from signing such a deal and Trump’s subsequent threats to impose tariffs on Guatemala if its officials did not agree to it. What effect will the “safe third country” designation have on Guatemala and on the flows of migrants headed north? Will Guatemala be able to handle an increase in asylum seekers and keep them safe from the conditions they are fleeing? How will the conflict between the Morales government’s agreement to the deal and the Constitutional Court’s stand against it play out?

Stephen McFarland, former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala: “The agreement will have a deterrent effect on migration, but it will also create an incentive to pay smugglers to enter clandestinely rather than to present themselves to U.S. authorities on the border. One major risk of the agreement is that it will further reduce U.S. engagement of the Northern Triangle countries on the structural causes of migration—hunger, lack of gainful employment and security threats. The accord is unpopular in Guatemala; even with U.S. threats, it is unclear it will be sustainable beyond the short term. The United States could send tens of thousands of asylum seekers each year to Guatemala. Most would be from Honduras and El Salvador, but there would be some from other countries inside and outside Latin America. Guatemala would have to expand exponentially its asylum review capacity. It is unclear how returnees to Guatemala would subsist during the adjudication process. Returnees from Honduras and El Salvador who fled due to gang or intrafamily violence would remain vulnerable to violence from their countries of origin. The backdrop is the Guatemalan Constitutional Court’s role in anti-corruption prosecutions, including some against the executive branch and the private sector, and in resolving any issues in Sunday’s presidential runoff. If the president asks Congress to approve the accord, that might resolve the initial dispute with the Constitutional Court.”

Andrew Arthur, resident fellow in law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies: “Most migrants to the United States arrive as families (FMUs) or unaccompanied alien children (UACs). Of the 688,375 migrants that the Border Patrol arrested on the southwest border through June, 56.69 percent were FMUs, and 9.2 percent were UACs. Historically, most apprehended aliens were single adult males from Mexico. Almost 42 percent of the UACs apprehended through June 2019 were Salvadoran and Honduran, however, as were half the FMUs. The United States lacks the capacity to handle those migrants, most of whom face violence on their journey north. And most if not all failed to apply for asylum in Guatemala first. A bipartisan U.S. government report indicates that lax U.S. laws encourage many migrants to make that trip, but congressional action is stalled. The exact terms of the agreement have not been released, but press reports indicate that migrants passing through Guatemala will be expected to apply for asylum there, and the U.S. government will bolster Guatemala’s capacity to address their asylum claims. In actuality, however, because U.S. economic opportunities drive many of those migrants, the flow of migrants passing through will likely be slashed, so few if any will actually apply there. Guatemala will benefit from a decrease in crime, corruption and illegal smuggling (a multi-billion-dollar business), and the security of its borders will increase as the number of passing migrants falls. And, as the United States is Guatemala’s largest trading partner, it will profit from the goodwill this agreement brings. Both countries will benefit.”

Risa Grais-Targow, director for Latin America at the Eurasia Group: “The controversial ‘migration cooperation agreement’ signed between the United States and Guatemala on July 26 is facing potential legal challenges in both countries, and thus its future remains uncertain. The deal will help stave off punitive measures by President Donald Trump that would have potentially been highly damaging to Guatemala’s economy, though the travel ban and remittance tax would also likely face both legal and implementation challenges. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court had previously determined that such a deal must be approved by Congress, but President Jimmy Morales is arguing that the agreement does not need congressional approval and seems poised to press ahead. If the deal holds, it would represent a major strain on Guatemala. The United Nations estimates that the United States received 467,163 applications over the last five years from migrants from El Salvador and Honduras. The Trump administration’s calculation seems to be that Guatemala’s designation as a safe third country will deter migrants from neighboring countries from leaving in the first place. Nevertheless, there will still likely be substantial inflows, which the government will struggle to accommodate. Authorities already have limited capacity to provide adequate public services, due in part to consistently low levels of revenues. Guatemalan outward migration itself remains robust, and any influx of migrants, however small, would be potentially problematic.”

Ana Quintana, senior policy analyst for Latin America and the Western Hemisphere at The Heritage Foundation: “From the preliminary known details of the U.S.-Guatemala asylum deal, there is much cause for concern. For starters, the agreement is not actionable in Guatemala. The country’s Constitutional Court requires congressional authorization, and Guatemala’s Congress has expressed its disapproval. Also, Jimmy Morales will be out of office in early January 2020, and neither of the leading presidential candidates supports the agreement. Additionally, there is no evidence Guatemala even has an asylum system or border control capabilities able to deal with the magnitude of the current migration crisis. We should also be concerned with the Morales administration’s questionable motivations for signing the agreement. Since Morales took office, there is little evidence to demonstrate that his administration has worked on protecting the more than one million Guatemalans affected by the drought. To the contrary, migration numbers prove otherwise. In fiscal year 2016, 23,067 family units from Guatemala were detained at the southern U.S. border. As of June in fiscal year 2019, the number increased to 167,104. We know these flows are largely due to an economic downturn and food security challenges associated with Guatemala’s drought. Instead of taking actionable steps to prevent vulnerable Guatemalans from migrating, Morales’ administration has been mired in serious corruption and criminal charges. The timing of the agreement, right before his departure from office, raises questions about his government’s motivations.”

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