Trump administration begins sending migrants to Guatemala as part of ‘safe third country’ agreement

The Trump administration on Thursday announced that it has started to send migrants to Guatemala as part of its “safe third country” agreement with the Central American nation — a boost for the administration’s effort to enlist other countries' help dealing with the migrant crisis.

An initial flight landed in Guatemala Thursday morning. The move is part of a “phased-in” approach to sending migrants mainly from Honduras and El Salvador to the Central American country, having established that its asylum policies meet the criteria of having a “full and fair” asylum system.

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The agreement, negotiated earlier this year, is part of a series of regional agreements with countries including Mexico and El Salvador.

“We continue to work on asylum agreement implementation plans with all three Central American countries,” acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf said in a statement to Fox News.

“For Guatemala specifically, we have begun a phased-in implementation approach, which includes sending an initial flight,” he said. “[The Department of Homeland Security], alongside the State Department, will continue to work with the Government of Guatemala and international organizations as we expand the program in the weeks and months ahead.”

DHS would not confirm operational details on how many migrants were on the plane, but a DHS official told Fox News that being moved to Guatemala was an option for migrants and that no one would be sent to the country against their will.

Migrants who are seeking asylum at the southern border will be given the option to be sent to Guatemala, sent back to their home country, or to enter the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) and wait in Mexico.

Migrant rights and humanitarian groups reacted with horror to the move, saying that it will potentially send migrants into a country marred by violence. The U.N. refugee agency said in a statement this week that it has “serious concerns” about the policy.

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“It is an approach at variance with international law that could result in the transfer of highly vulnerable individuals to countries where they may face life-threatening dangers,” the statement said.

“UNHCR is not party to any of the bilateral Asylum Cooperative Agreements (ACA) concluded in recent months between the United States and the governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. We are in dialogue with all of the governments concerned to enumerate our concerns as we also seek to learn more about their plans for implementation.”

But for the administration, which has prioritized securing America’s border and specifically ending the pull factors that have attracted more than a million migrants to make the journey north and attempt to enter the U.S., it’s a necessary move. The U.S. is also underwriting Guatemala’s asylum system, both through funding directly to the country and also via funding to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The Guatemala agreement will work in conjunction with MPP, known colloquially as the “Remain-in-Mexico” policy, by which migrants seeking asylum are sent back to Mexico to await their immigration proceedings. That policy aims in part to speed up claims and also end the “catch-and-release” practice whereby migrants were released into the interior.

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The administration’s approach, which includes building a wall at the southern border, has coincided with apprehensions at the border dropping by approximately 70 percent since May.