The Trump administration has sent the first migrant to Guatemala as part of its agreement with the country to accept asylum seeking migrants from the US, according to Guatemalan officials.
An Honduran man arrived in Guatemala City on Thursday morning. He appeared to be the only migrant on the flight and was taken to a shelter after being processed.
The agreement marks a significant shift in US asylum policy as migrants who may have a legitimate claim for asylum are sent to another country to make their case.
Over recent months, the administration has been in discussions with the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to send migrants seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border to those countries. The accords bar migrants from seeking asylum in the US, with some exceptions, and allows the US to instead send asylum seekers to one of the three countries.
It’s not unusual for the government to start off small to work out the kinks, said a Homeland Security official. A similar slow-start process took place with the launch of the administration’s program to return migrants to Mexico to await immigration proceedings in the US.
Newly appointed acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf told reporters in south Texas Thursday that flights had begun, saying it’s a “phased-in process.”
The Trump administration has touted the agreements, arguing that they allow migrants to seek asylum closer to their home countries. But immigrant advocates and lawyers have pushed back, noting that the countries the US struck agreements with don’t have the infrastructure in place to support these migrants. Wolf said Thursday that the US, along with international organizations, is assisting Guatemala to accommodate migrant arrivals.
Meanwhile, US asylum officers are receiving training on the program and have gradually begun interviewing migrants to assess whether they’re eligible to go to Guatemala, according to two sources familiar with the process. Migrants from Honduras and El Salvador are eligible to be sent back to Guatemala under this program, according to a CNN.
Under US law, migrants are allowed to claim asylum once on US soil. There’s a caveat, however, for those who come through safe third countries, meaning countries that the US has entered into an agreement with. The United Nations’ refugee agency defines “safe country,” in part, as “being countries in which refugees can enjoy asylum without any danger.”
The US has had a safe-third agreement with Canada since 2002.
Migrants who are placed in this asylum program do not have access to counsel prior to being removed from the US, according to two sources familiar with the process.