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US Terminates Shameful Asylum-Shirking Pacts

Biden Administration Ends Agreements with Central American Governments

A Honduran mother and her 3-year-old daughter wait with fellow asylum seekers on the Mexican side of the Brownsville-Matamoros International Bridge after being denied entry by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers near Brownsville, Texas, U.S., June 24, 2018. © 2018 Reuters

On February 6, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken announced the United States would immediately suspend asylum cooperative agreements the administration of former President Donald Trump had wrangled from the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These agreements enabled the US to rapidly expel Central American asylum seekers to neighboring countries in the region, regardless of whether those countries had capacity to protect them.

Only the Guatemala agreement was ever implemented, and the US sent fewer than 1,000 Hondurans and Salvadorans there before the Covid-19 pandemic caused transfers to stop in March 2020. Many of those transferred quickly gave up hope of a fair asylum hearing in Guatemala, let alone any sense they could be protected there while their claims were pending. 

Human Rights Watch met “Celia D.,” a Honduran woman who traveled to the US with her 12-year-old daughter to seek asylum. She told us that US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents had separated her from her child and held them in separate cells, a violation of CBP’s detention standards. An immigration official told her to choose between deportation to her home country or being sent to Guatemala. She responded, “Neither,” but agents packed Celia and her daughter onto a plane.  

They disembarked in Guatemala, where they spent hours on the airport tarmac with no food or water. Celia was told only that she would have 72 hours to decide whether to seek asylum in Guatemala or leave the country. She told Human Rights Watch she was afraid to stay in Guatemala and planned to return to Honduras with her daughter, despite her fear of attack there. 

Last year, Human Rights Watch issued a report with Refugees International  that described a dysfunctional asylum system in Guatemala that did not meet the US legal standard for a “safe third country” – the ability to provide “access to a full and fair [asylum] procedure.” In fact, a US embassy cable written while the cooperative agreement was being negotiated reported that Guatemala had not processed a single asylum case in more than a year.

The asylum cooperative agreements were a travesty—a clear shirking of US obligations to protect refugees, which put lives in danger. Their demise is a first step to constructing a humane and fair asylum policy in the United States.

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