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The Trump Administration Is Scrambling To Make Its “Safe Third Country” Asylum Deal With Guatemala A Reality, A Memo Shows

Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan is planning to travel to Guatemala where he will press for plans on how the country will implement the surprise agreement.

Posted on July 30, 2019, at 4:05 p.m. ET

Oliver De Ros / AP

Demonstrators protest Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales outside the Presidential House in response to an agreement with the US regarding asylum-seekers.

A surprise announcement last week in which Guatemala agreed to require asylum-seekers who travel through its borders to first seek refuge there before moving on to the US has yet to take effect as Trump officials scramble to obtain an agreement on how it will look on the ground, according to a draft government memo obtained by BuzzFeed News.

A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official said Tuesday that the US is “working closely” with Guatemala on the implementation of the agreement, which includes “a phased implementation relying upon a mutual understanding and agreement of the number of people who might seek protection in Guatemala and what volume of protection seekers the Guatemalan system could process.”

But according to the draft briefing memo, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan plans to press Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales during a visit on how his country will implement the agreement. One talking point for his trip this week even states, “Has Guatemala taken any steps to create the Guatemalan implementation plan?”

DHS officials also recognize in the memo that the agreement — which is controversial and has spurred demonstrations against Morales’s government — would need to be ratified by the Guatemalan Congress, as the country’s Constitutional Court has previously blocked any potential “safe third country” agreement with the US.

Oliver De Ros / AP

People protest Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales in response to the so-called safe third country agreement with the US.

There’s also political turnover to reckon with. McAleenan appears to be laying the groundwork to make sure the agreement doesn’t fall apart due to a change in Guatemalan leadership. Morales’s term ends in January, and the country is set to have a presidential run-off Aug. 11 after not one candidate secured enough votes in the initial election.

According to the briefing memo drafted in preparation for his trip, McAleenan plans to meet with both lead candidates — Alejandro Giammattei and Sandra Torres — to highlight the benefits of the agreement and offer foreign assistance to win their support. However, Giammattei has already criticized the plan on Twitter, saying, “It is up to the next government to attend to this negotiation.”

McAleenan told reporters Friday that the agreement, which would force asylum-seekers who did not apply for protections in Guatemala to be sent back to the country, would be implemented in August after procedural steps were met.

In a section of the briefing detailing potential “asks” of the Guatemalan president, officials said McAleenan should push for help to ensure that the two countries collaborate to implement a “phased approach to the transfer of migrants” who seek protection in Guatemala. The next step, the memo states, is the “terms of the implementation plan” in order to execute the agreement.

Carolyn Kaster / AP

President Donald Trump, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan (right), and Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart in the White House on July 26.

According to the memo, McAleenan is also prepared to offer the candidates a resumption of foreign assistance aimed at addressing the root causes driving emigration from the country. Earlier this year, the Trump administration cut hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign assistance to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

One talking point to the run-off presidential candidates states that the government of Guatemala “is finalizing the internal mechanism details in order to ensure the reception capacities of their immigration system are able to provide the necessary services to migrants seeking protection.”

The trip is the third to Guatemala since McAleenan became acting secretary. The agreement struck by the former US Customs and Border Protection commissioner has the potential to produce a monumental shift in emigration from Central America and secure his place in Trump’s good graces.

But since the announcement of the agreement, immigrant advocates have sharply criticized the acting secretary for believing that those who are fleeing unsafe conditions in Central America will be taken care of in Guatemala.

The country has struggled with violence but has seen a drop in murders in recent years.

“The idea that Guatemala has adequate asylum processes in place is an extreme stretch, to say the least,” one DHS official told BuzzFeed News. “Once again this administration is showing its total disregard of real, tangible human lives that will be harmed and lost as a result. An extremely saddening development.”

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.