MEXICO CITY—The immigration pact signed last week between the U.S. and Guatemala would likely change migration dynamics in the region, lessening the flow of asylum-seeking families but raising the number of single migrants who try to enter the U.S. undetected.
Under the “safe third country” agreement, Hondurans and Salvadorans would be required to apply for asylum in Guatemala instead of in the U.S. Asylum seekers from those countries apprehended at the U.S. southern border, mostly families, would be returned to Guatemala, U.S. and Guatemalan officials say.
The agreement faces legal and political hurdles in Guatemala, where it is widely unpopular and the subject of protests this past weekend. The country’s top court is expected to soon rule on two injunctions filed against the deal. It will clarify if the pact must be approved by Congress—where it faces opposition—and whether it was signed legally by the Interior Minister.
If the accord is implemented, it would likely deter migrant families from Honduras and El Salvador, said the manager of a migrant shelter in Guatemala City. Instead, it would revive old patterns in which migrants are predominantly single adults, mainly men, as the journey becomes more perilous and costly.
“Single adults and those with more resources may take a chance and get to the U.S. undetected,” the migrant shelter manager said.
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Few experts expect a surge in asylum claims in Guatemala because the country is poor, dangerous and inhospitable to them. “If [migrants] had wanted to seek asylum in Guatemala, they would have done so when they crossed through Guatemala en route toward the U.S.,” Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart said in an interview.
But the deal could have side effects in Mexico, as Central American families seek asylum there to join a growing community of their kin. The Trump administration is pressuring Mexico to sign a “safe third country” deal that would require Guatemalans to seek asylum there but Mexico has resisted.
Central Americans fleeing violence and persecution, particularly families, “may attempt to at least get to Mexico and request asylum there,” said Maureen Meyer, head of the migrant-rights program at The Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy group. Others may try countries including Costa Rica or Panama, where asylum requests are rising, she said.
The arrival of migrants traveling with children to the U.S. has sharply increased over the past five years, exceeding single adults and unaccompanied minors by a large margin. In the nine months of fiscal year 2019, some 390,000 migrants traveling with children were detained at the border—57% of the total. The vast majority came from Central America.
Families benefit from U.S. asylum rules allowing them to stay in the U.S. while their proceedings are adjudicated, a process that could extend for years. Ninety-nine percent of families apprehended in the U.S. in fiscal year 2017 were still in the country in January, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The Trump administration claims that most asylum seekers are in reality economic migrants filling the country’s courts with improper claims. Just about 8,500 migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were granted asylum in 2017. Some 900,000 cases are pending in immigration courts.
The Trump administration has implemented other changes to deter the surge. A rule begun in July bars migrants traveling through a third country en route to the U.S. ineligible for asylum. It has been challenged in court.
Another rule required migrants with pending asylum claims in the U.S. to be sent to Mexico while their cases are heard—barring them from staying and working in the U.S. during the judicial proceedings. Some 20,000 have been returned since January.
U.S. authorities are also limiting the number of asylum requests processed in U.S. ports of entry. Long waiting lists—the one in Tijuana, across from San Diego, Calif., has some 5,000 people—are already prompting some migrants to go back home.
Guatemalan business groups favor last week’s pact because it enables Guatemala to avoid economic sanctions threatened by Mr. Trump. “The risks and consequences of not signing would have been too great for the country,” Juan Carlos Tefel, head of Guatemala’s main business chamber, wrote on Twitter.
But the agreement is facing opposition, with many Guatemalans fearing a flood of asylum requests. Both candidates in next month’s presidential runoff election condemned the accord. Sandra Torres, the center-left candidate who leads in the polls, said Guatemala didn’t have the resources to look after its own citizens, let alone foreigners. Her center-right opponent, Alejandro Giammattei, called the proposed agreement an irresponsible act by departing President Jimmy Morales.
From January to May, Guatemala received just 172 asylum claims, according to the United Nations refugee agency, and just 1,300 requests since 2002. By comparison, some 259,000 people applied for asylum in the U.S. in 2017 alone, according to U.S. figures, more than a quarter from Honduras and El Salvador.
Úrsula Roldán, a migration expert at the Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala City, said it was unlikely that asylum claims in Guatemala will rise sharply. Instead, she said, many migrants from Honduras and El Salvador will try to enter the U.S. undetected, and those sent back to Guatemala will likely return home.
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