The U.S. government has ended a controversial agreement with Guatemala that sent asylum-seekers processed at the U.S.-Mexico border to the Central American country to await hearings, according to a U.S. State Department statement and the Guatemalan government.
Guatemala's foreign ministry said in a statement Friday that U.S. officials had informed it of the cancellation of the program, which was negotiated under the administration of former President Donald Trump.
The agreement with Guatemala was signed in 2019, just as similar pacts were negotiated with El Salvador and Honduras, all in a bid by Trump to force other countries in the region to help the United States alleviate a surge of asylum-seekers arriving at the U.S. southern border by agreeing to take them in for prolonged waits.
Transfers under the U.S.-Guatemala Asylum Cooperative Agreement had been paused since mid-March 2020 because of COVID-19 measures, and the agreements with El Salvador and Honduras were never implemented, according to a State Department statement Saturday.
“To be clear, these actions do not mean that the U.S. border is open,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in the statement. “While we are committed to expanding legal pathways for protection and opportunity here and in the region, the United States is a country with borders and laws that must be enforced.”
Criticism of pacts
Rights groups sharply criticized the pacts, saying they added to the misery of asylum-seekers, many of whom fled violent gangs from the same impoverished countries.
The agreements allowed the U.S. to send asylum-seekers to one of the three Central American countries to apply for asylum there and have their claims reviewed.
Earlier this week, U.S. President Joe Biden ordered a review of asylum processing at the U.S.-Mexico border, part of a broad effort to chart a less-restrictive immigration system during the first weeks of his term.
Among the measures announced, Biden called for a review of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a Trump program also known as "Remain in Mexico" that ordered tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for their U.S. court dates.
He also signaled the imminent end of the asylum deals with the Central American countries.
Senior aides to Biden have nevertheless cautioned that administration's broader immigration agenda will take time to roll out, as the new president seeks to be both more accepting of migrants and asylum-seekers while also seeking to prevent a surge in unlawful border crossings.