The Trump administration has finalized an agreement to send certain asylum-seekers picked up at the border to El Salvador to seek protection in the Central American country, according to a Department of Homeland Security announcement sent to congressional staffers on Tuesday.
It is unclear how quickly the agreement would be implemented and whether the administration will actually invoke it prior to the arrival of President-elect Joe Biden. The controversial plan was initially signed in 2019, but implementation of the deal was delayed.
Earlier this year, US officials met with El Salvador's president, Nayib Bukele, about the deal. Last December, Bukele told CBS’s 60 Minutes that El Salvador was not ready for asylum-seekers from other countries.
Chad Wolf, the DHS’s acting secretary, has been in Central America discussing the deal with Bukele.
“Implementation of the Asylum Cooperative Agreement between the United States and El Salvador is a critical step in the establishment of a truly regional approach to migration, and, more specifically, to the offer of protection to those migrants who are victims of persecution,” Wolf said in the statement. “I am grateful to the Government of El Salvador, and to President Bukele personally, for their commitment to the implementation of the ACA, and for the resulting expansion of avenues for protection available to persecuted migrants in the region.”
The announcement added that the deal was put in place “in order to confront the ongoing humanitarian and security crisis at the Southwest border due to historic levels of irregular migration and human smuggling.”
“Under the ACA,” the statement continued, “certain migrants requesting asylum or similar humanitarian protection at the U.S. border will be transferred to El Salvador to seek protection in El Salvador.”
News of the plans comes at the tail end of the Trump administration’s broader efforts to restrict asylum at the southern border, including a policy that forces asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico for the duration of their US immigration cases. In recent months, DHS has relied on a public health provision to expel people from the US citing the coronavirus pandemic.
The safe-third-country-like deals with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — agreements with all three countries to accept asylum-seekers — were signed last year after negotiations led by then–DHS secretary Kevin McAleenan. The Guatemala agreement was implemented late but plans to send asylum-seekers to El Salvador and Honduras stalled.
“Implementation of the ACA will involve and facilitate cooperation between the two governments to expand El Salvador's systems for offering humanitarian protections. Building El Salvador's protection capacity will involve the use of best practices developed by the United States and the international community to increase protection options for vulnerable populations,” the statement read.
Advocates and asylum officers previously told BuzzFeed News that the unprecedented plan lacks legality and organization and will lead to immigrants being placed in dangerous circumstances.
Earlier this year, the Biden–Sanders task force, organized after the president-elect won the Democratic nomination, recommended an end to the agreements signed with the Central American countries. Biden has said he wants to convene leaders in the region to discuss larger, structural issues regarding migration to the US border.