We have mentioned often–most recently on November 19–the Trump administration’s efforts to establish countries in the Northern Triangle–Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras–as “safe third” countries to which asylum seekers can be sent instead of the United States. The concept, long a part of international law, holds that a migrant who has passed through a safe third country to his way to a preferred destination can be deported back to that country for processing.
Details of the new program are still being finalized, but essentially it will work this way: A migrant appearing at a U.S port of entry or attempting to cross the border illegally is taken into custody and questioned by Border Patrol agents. If he expresses “credible fear” of being returned to his home country, he is interviewed by phone by a special asylum officer who evaluates his claim. If the claim is denied, the asylum officer has the option of selecting him for deportation to a safe third country, or granting an exemption based upon “public interest.” Exemptions, expected to be rare, are subject to approval by USCIS headquarters. (Asylum seekers thus exempted are still subject to the MPP or “Remain in Mexico” program.)
Those selected for return to a safe third country are deported. Once on the ground there, the deportee may then opt to remain there or to return to his home country. In the case of Guatemala, deportees opting for the latter are referred to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for assistance.
CBS News is reporting that implementation of the new policy has begun.
A Honduran man arrived in Guatemala City on Thursday, having been deported from the U.S. He was said to have opted to return home to Honduras.
The program is expected to start slowly at first, as did the MPP program last winter, and will initially be applied at the U.S. Border Patrol station in El Paso, Texas. The first phase will target adults from Honduras and El Salvador, processing 10 to 15 people each day, with the aim of completing the process within 72 hours.
The policy has been attacked by a variety of migrant support groups, including UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, as potentially placing migrants in danger. However, Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart, in charge of the new program in Guatemala, told reporters on Thursday that the agreement will actually protect the region’s poor in the long run. It will do so, he said, by thwarting the smuggling organizations that entice the poor into attempting the dangerous journey through Mexico to the United States.