Mexican Asylum Seekers Could Now Be Deported to Guatemala

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration will deport some Mexicans seeking asylum at the United States border to Guatemala as part of a deal that had been praised by Department of Homeland Security officials as a way to deter migration from Central America.

The agreement with Guatemala, which was signed in July, was described by Kevin K. McAleenan, the acting secretary of homeland security at the time, as a way to encourage families to apply for protections closer to home. The deal made migrants such as Hondurans and Salvadorans ineligible for asylum in the United States if they had traveled by land through Guatemala and did not first apply for asylum there, homeland security officials said at the time.

But two homeland security officials said on Monday that asylum officers were told over the weekend that Mexican migrants were now “amenable” to being sent to Guatemala under the agreement. In theory, an asylum seeker from Juárez, Mexico, could be deported from the El Paso, Texas, border crossing a mile from his home to the Guatemalan border nearly 2,000 miles away.

A homeland security spokesman later confirmed that certain Mexicans could be sent to Guatemala under the agreement — a pivot from the original plan for the deal.

The expansion of the asylum deal, which was initially described as a so-called safe-third-country agreement, is likely to face public backlash. While Mr. McAleenan said in an interview last summer that the agreement “does not expressly limit nationalities,” it was also described as a way to prevent migrants from making a long and dangerous journey to the United States. But Mexicans do not need to pass through any other country to apply for protections at the border.

Andrew Meehan, a homeland security spokesman when the deal was signed, said on Monday that “Mexican nationals were not under consideration” to be sent to Guatemala when the agency reached the accord. He is no longer with the administration.

The administration signed the deal with Guatemala after President Trump threatened the Central American country with tariffs but before the department completed a plan to put the policy in place — leaving an opening to continue to tweak the agreement.

And the agency is now under new leadership, with Chad Wolf replacing Mr. McAleenan and Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the acting director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, rising through the ranks at homeland security.

The addition of Mexicans to the deal comes as homeland security officials have in recent weeks searched for ways to prevent them from crossing the southwestern border.

Border arrests have declined by 70 percent since May, the height of crossings last year, driven by multiple policies aiming to prevent Central Americans from seeking asylum in the United States.

But as violence has driven many to flee north, about 17,000 Mexicans were caught crossing between ports of entry in October, a 34 percent increase since July, according to Customs and Border Protection.

The Homeland Security Department has been searching for ways to stem the uptick for the past month — including instituting a pilot program in El Paso intended to expedite the adjudications of Mexican migrants seeking asylum.

“We are building protections that will be available to the region’s vulnerable populations closer to home, eliminating the need to make the dangerous journey north and lining the pockets of transnational criminal organizations,” Mr. Cuccinelli said in a tweet in December. “As we fully implement the agreement, all populations are being considered, including Mexican nationals.”

Alejandro Giammattei, who takes over as Guatemala’s president this month, had said he would review the agreement. It remains unclear how Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, will react to the United States’ sending Mexicans to Guatemala.

But immigration observers said the expansion of the deal, first reported by BuzzFeed News, would only jeopardize a vulnerable population by sending migrants to a country that many might have never been to before.

While only dozens of migrants have been deported under the deal, Guatemala’s asylum system has also been criticized for not being sufficient enough to handle a surge of asylum seekers. At the Guatemalan Migration Institute, where many of the migrants would be processed, a staff of eight handled just 262 applications in 2018.

Michael Knowles, a spokesman for the National CIS Council, the union representing asylum officers, said the policy was meant to prevent migrants from coming to the United States as opposed to ensuring their safety.

“How much closer to home for a Mexican can you get than the United States?” Mr. Knowles said. “Ultimately, we believe, the union — and I don’t think it’s a stretch because the administration has said as much — it’s all about deterrence.”

Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, the policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, said the inclusion of Mexicans undercut the initial justification of the agreement with Guatemala.

“The government repeatedly said this was about making sure people applied close to home and the first country they passed through,” Mr. Reichlin-Melnick said. “And now we’re seeing this is being applied even to people who have never stepped foot in Guatemala.”

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