The Trump administration on Wednesday began carrying out its controversial plan to deport adults from El Salvador and Honduras who are at the southern border seeking asylum to the US — and send them to Guatemala.
The complicated mechanics of the plan, signed in July, has so far been shrouded in secrecy. Two sources with knowledge of the process and emailed guidance sent to asylum officials obtained by BuzzFeed News can reveal new details of the “third country” agreement — including a crucial part of the process where asylum-seekers are not entitled to a lawyer.
“We’re very concerned about how this has been rolled out,” said Michael Knowles, an asylum officer and spokesperson for the National CIS Council 119, the union that represents thousands of US Citizenship and Immigration Services employees worldwide, including about 700 refugee and asylum officers.
The Trump administration says the plan is a key element in its strategy to deter migration at the border and another method to restrict asylum-seekers from entering the US. Advocates and asylum officers previously told BuzzFeed News that the unprecedented plan lacks legality, organization, and will lead immigrants to be placed in dangerous circumstances.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services officials emailed guidance to asylum officers across the country on Wednesday morning to notify them that implementation of the plan would begin, according to a copy of the email provided to BuzzFeed News.
The first phase of the plan will take place in El Paso. Border officials will, on an expected daily basis, refer a small number of adult asylum-seekers from El Salvador and Honduras who arrived on or after Tuesday to asylum officers for interviews, according to two sources with knowledge of the process.
A few dozen asylum officers who had already been trained on the process will handle the interviews. The point is to determine is a person is eligible to be deported to Guatemala. The immigrants are told they will be deported to Guatemala and can obtain protections there, instead of in the US.
Before this interview with an asylum officer, immigrants have no access to legal counsel — unlike their initial asylum screening, when they first arrive at the US border. The asylum-seeker must explicitly state that they fear persecution or torture in Guatemala in order to have an opportunity to avoid deportation, the email said. They must prove it is “more likely than not” that they will be persecuted or tortured there.
"Under the law, aliens may be removed from the U.S. according to a bilateral or multilateral agreement so that those who are in need of legitimate and immediate protection can seek protection within the region, closer to home, without taking the dangerous journey," said a DHS spokesperson. "We appreciate the opportunity to clarify a federal statute enacted on a bi-partisan basis over 20 years ago."
Agency officials said that more than 71 percent of those apprehended at the southern border in the 2019 fiscal year were from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador.
Unaccompanied children will not be eligible to be deported to Guatemala and families with children under 18 are not part of the first phase of the screenings, the email said. In rare circumstances, immigrants can avoid deportation to Guatemala if it is in the “public interest” — a vague exemption that must be cleared by senior USCIS officials.
All asylum officers must be trained under the protocol within a week, suggesting a ramp up in the near future.
This “third country” agreement with Guatemala, 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, nearly closes off the US to people fleeing persecution from Central America.
“When you combine these restrictive policies, it appears that virtually no one crossing our border will qualify for asylum, except in exceptional circumstances,” Knowles said, noting how the administration plans to also implement similar deals with El Salvador and Honduras. “It’s like a virtual wall.”
Officers were told that an individual can still be deported to Guatemala under the program even if they did not travel through Guatemala on the way to the southern border, the sources told BuzzFeed News. The emailed guidance makes no mention of a transit requirement.
Immigration court judges were also provided guidance this week to begin implementing the program.
BuzzFeed News recently revealed that, up to late last week, Department of Homeland Security officials were still scrambling to figure out critical details about the Guatemala plan. “There is uncertainty as to who will provide orientation services for migrants as well as who will provide shelter, food, transportation, and other care,” read a DHS brief drafted for Acting Secretary Chad Wolf in the run-up to a meeting Friday with Guatemala’s Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart.
The implementation plan spelled out that Guatemala would provide the services, but recently there had been “confusion” as to whether that would happen, according to the materials.
Wolf was urged to raise the issues with Degenhart in their meeting and clarify the outstanding issues.
“The U.S. needs confirmation from the [Government of Guatemala] that they will provide shelter, transportation, and food,” the briefing materials read. “If not, the U.S. and [Government of Guatemala] need to brainstorm other avenues of assistance.”
On Tuesday, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said it had serious concerns about the implementation of the policy.
“It is an approach at variance with international law that could result in the transfer of highly vulnerable individuals to countries where they may face life-threatening dangers” a statement from the UN’s refugee agency said. UNHCR has been cited by DHS officials as a partner in helping build up the nascent asylum system in Guatemala.
Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere and has the sixth-highest rate of malnutrition in the world. Nearly half of the country suffers from chronic malnutrition, with the prevalence reaching about 70% in some indigenous areas, according to a 2018 report from USAID.
The country has struggled with violence but has seen a drop in murders in recent years, with a homicide rate of 22.4 per 100,000 people. By comparison, the US had a homicide rate of 5.3 per 100,000.