WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump claimed Monday that Guatemala was "getting ready to sign" an agreement that would force migrants who flee persecution in El Salvador and Honduras to request asylum in Guatemala instead of Mexico or the United States.
A U.S. State Department delegation traveled to Guatemala last week to seek approval for the "safe third country" protocol, which if signed would be the first such agreement between the United States and a Latin American country.
There has been no public indication from Guatemala that the deal was close to completion.
Trump's comment came in a late-night series of tweets in which he praised Mexico for "using their strong immigration laws" and helping to stop people before they make the journey all the way up to the U.S. southern border, something Trump has long demanded as he seeks to cut the number of migrant arrivals.
Threat to deport millions
He also said that within the United States, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency would begin next week removing those who had illegally entered the country.
Earlier Monday, Trump's administration announced plans to slash hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
U.S. State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said funds for programs in those countries would not be provided until the administration is satisfied these governments are taking concrete actions to reduce the number of migrants coming to the United States.
"Working with Congress, we will reprogram those funds to other priorities as appropriate. This is consistent with the president's direction and with the recognition that it is critical that there be sufficient political will in these countries to address the problem at its source. As Secretary Pompeo has said, these nations have the responsibility to take care of the immigration problems in their home country," Ortagus said.
The Reuters news agency quoted congressional aides as saying the administration told them it would reallocate $370 million in aid to Central America that lawmakers had approved for fiscal 2018, and suspend an additional $180 million Congress had approved for fiscal 2017.
Lawmakers had been urging the administration not to cut the aid, fearing the end of U.S. assistance will only make worse the rampant poverty, deep-rooted political instability and widespread insecurity in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, collectively known as the "Northern Triangle."
Rep. Veronica Escobar who represents the border city of El Paso, Texas, said on Twitter that the Trump administration's strategy is destabilizing.
"Instead of working with leaders in Central America to stabilize the situation there, the administration is eliminating aid intended to create better conditions that would help keep families home," she wrote.
And *again* the Trump administration chooses a strategy that makes things worse.— Rep. Veronica Escobar (@RepEscobar) June 17, 2019
Instead of working with leaders in Central America to stabilize the situation there, the administration is eliminating aid intended to create better conditions that would help keep families home. https://t.co/g2SC3XtHMz
The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights group, tweeted that cutting "all aid to Central America is not the way to build a safer, more prosperous region where people aren't forced to flee."
Cutting all aid to Central America is not the way to build a safer, more prosperous region where people aren't forced to flee: https://t.co/O7n70NmSPy— WOLA (@WOLA_org) June 17, 2019
Back in March, the Trump administration promised to cut aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras after Trump expressed unhappiness with the three countries' immigration policies.
"We completed a review, and previously awarded grants and contracts will continue with current funding. State Department assistance in support of priorities of the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security priorities to help the Northern Triangle governments take actions that will protect the U.S. border and counter transnational organized crime will also continue," Ortagus said.
Lawmakers who were against the plan said it was cruel to cut off aid to countries dealing with hunger and crime. The move would be counterproductive, they said, because it is more likely to increase the number of migrants than decrease it.