The White House has directed the Department of Homeland Security to implement a deal to send asylum-seekers to Honduras by January, the second in a series of controversial agreements made with Central American countries to deport immigrants seeking protection at the southern border, according to a government document obtained by BuzzFeed News.
Implementing the agreement has been met with a series of issues that appear to be complicating the January deadline. The deal with Honduras was initially signed in September — at the time, agency officials did not provide many specific details about its implementation — and is part of the Trump administration’s strategy to deter asylum-seekers from coming to the US border.
Critics say the Trump administration is forcing people who are fleeing violence and poverty to go back to countries that have weak asylum systems and are unable to protect their own people, let alone immigrants.
Last week, DHS officials implemented a similar agreement to send to Guatemala adult asylum-seekers picked up in the El Paso area who are from Honduras and El Salvador.
In October, DHS officials traveled to Honduras to discuss details about implementing the unprecedented plan, called the Asylum Cooperative Agreement (ACA), according to briefing materials drawn up for acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf and obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The discussions in Honduras appear to have hit a few roadblocks. First, Honduran officials have requested that no one convicted or accused of a felony be sent to their country, a proposal that was seen by DHS officials as “operationally unfeasible given the expedited nature of the removals.”
They also wanted asylum-seekers to “manifest their conformity,” or express their agreement to being transferred — something DHS officials recommended rejecting or clarifying because it was “not legally or operationally feasible.”
Further, Honduran officials wanted transfers to start only once both countries “provided notification that they have complied with the legal and institutional conditions necessary for proper implementation of this agreement.” But privately, DHS officials viewed that request as an attempt to get out of the deal if they wanted to.
“This reads as [the government of Honduras]’s escape-hatch not to implement the ACA given its lack of ‘institutional conditions’ or as the hook to demand more assistance” from the US or nongovernmental organizations, the officials wrote.
Officials from the Central American country also wanted a definition of what would constitute a “public interest” exemption to deporting someone to Honduras. The vague exemption is also being used in the plan to deport asylum-seekers from El Salvador and Honduras to Guatemala.
But in their recommendation to Wolf, DHS officials said the request should be rejected since “it gives the US government more operational flexibility not to define what we consider the ‘public interest exemption’ for when we choose not to remove an alien pursuant to the ACA.’”
DHS officials have previously said that more than 71% of people apprehended at the southern border in the 2019 fiscal year were from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador.
Honduras had a homicide rate of 40 per 100,000 people in 2017, while Guatemala's was 22.4 per 100,000 inhabitants, among the highest in the Western Hemisphere, according to InSight Crime.
The “third country”–like agreements with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — paired with policies that force asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico for the duration of their cases in the US and a rule that bars asylum for people who cross through Mexico to get to the southern border — would nearly close off the US to people fleeing persecution in Central America.