The Guatemalan government has suspended accepting flights carrying asylum-seekers trying to enter the US — rebuffing one of the Trump administration’s key methods of deporting would-be immigrants — as a way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus within its borders.
The controversial policy, which has been in place since late last year, sends people from Honduras and El Salvador who try to seek asylum in the US to Guatemala to seek protection there instead.
It has resulted in more than 900 asylum-seekers being deported to Guatemala so far.
Guatemala’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the change on Tuesday. Department of Homeland Security officials did not respond to a request for comment.
The policy — officially labeled as an Asylum Cooperative Agreement and colloquially called a “safe third country” agreement — is a key element in its strategy to deter immigration at the border and restrict asylum-seekers from entering the US. Advocates and asylum officers previously told BuzzFeed News that the unprecedented agreement lacks legality and organization and will lead to immigrants being placed in dangerous circumstances.
Guatemala’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had also suspended flights of Guatemalan deportees from the US while it established health protocols to ensure a deportee doesn’t take the virus back to their community. Officials said plans include three medical checks in the US, as well as one before getting on a plane for Guatemala and another inspection when they land.
There is no timeline for when that would happen.
Senior administration officials have said the policy of sending asylum-seekers from El Salvador and Honduras to Guatemala is an opportunity for individuals from the countries to seek protection closer to their home countries.
“We are building protections that will be available to the region’s vulnerable populations closer to home — eliminating the need to make the dangerous journey north and lining the pockets of transnational criminal organizations,” acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said in December.
The coronavirus pandemic has been spreading within US communities for weeks. This has led to cancellations of large conferences, concerts, and other events; widespread closures of schools; and other containment measures.
Guatemala recently reported the first death of an individual from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, within its country on Sunday.
On Tuesday afternoon, US Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officers had yet to receive guidance on the reported suspension of flights to Guatemala. The officers oversee key aspects of the program to send asylum-seekers from El Salvador and Honduras to Guatemala.