President Donald Trump says Guatemala has signed a deal with the U.S. that would restrict Central Americans from seeking asylum in the United States.
Trump said Friday the agreement requires migrants who cross into Guatemala on their way to the United States to apply for asylum protections in Guatemala instead of at the U.S. border.
"This is a very big day,'' Trump told reporters in the Oval Office Friday after the two countries spent months negotiating such an agreement.
"This landmark agreement will put the coyotes and smugglers out of business," Trump said.
The president had threatened earlier this week to impose tariffs on Guatemala if it didn't reach an immigration deal with the United States.
Under the terms of the agreement, migrants fleeing persecution in El Salvador and Honduras would be required to seek asylum in Guatemala, a gateway to Mexico and the United States. Those who do not apply for asylum in Guatemala and instead continue north would be sent back to Guatemala by U.S. immigration authorities.
U.S. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan told reporters Friday that allowing asylum-seekers to make an asylum claim "at the earliest possible point" would prevent people from making a journey to the U.S. border at the hands of smugglers.
He noted that only 10%-15% of migrants who file an asylum claim at the U.S. border are found by a U.S. judge to have a credible claim.
McAleenan said the agreement will increase the integrity of the U.S. asylum process, keep smugglers out of the process, and help those who have legitimate asylum claims to file them sooner.
It is not clear how Guatemala's courts will respond to the deal, which is known as a "safe third country" agreement. The country's Constitutional Court has ruled that such a deal cannot be signed without approval of the country's Congress, which is on a summer recess.
Trump referred to the deal Friday as a "safe third country" agreement, but a statement by the Guatemalan government did not use that term, instead calling it a "Cooperation Agreement for the Assessment of Protection Requests."
Trump praised Guatemala's government on Friday, saying it now has "a friend in the United States, instead of an enemy in the United States."
Friday's deal was signed in the Oval Office by McAleenan and Guatemala's interior minister, Enrique Degenhart.
McAleenan said the new asylum process should "be up and running by August."
In a statement earlier this month, Attorney General William Barr noted "the large number of meritless asylum claims places an extraordinary strain on the nation's immigration system, undermines many of the humanitarian purposes of asylum, has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis of human smuggling.".
Amnesty International, however, condemned Friday's agreement, saying "any attempts to force families and individuals fleeing their home countries to seek safety in Guatemala are outrageous."
In a statement, the group said, "The United States government knows well that conditions there are dangerous," adding that "there is no doubt that Guatemala should not be considered a safe place of refuge."