Trump admin readies rule to send asylum-seekers back to dangerous countries they passed through

"There will be people who will die as a result of these policies," a U.S. immigration official said on the condition of anonymity.
Image: A migrant caravan walks towards the United States in Tapanatepec, Mexico, on Jan. 21, 2019.
A migrant caravan walks toward the United States in Tapanatepec, Mexico, on Jan. 21, 2019.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

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By Julia Ainsley

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is preparing to publish a rule that would send migrants who pass through Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras before seeking asylum in the United States back to those dangerous Central American countries to claim asylum there instead.

A copy of the rule, which was made visible online for "public inspection" Monday, would give asylum officers the authority to determine if one of the three agreements the U.S. has recently signed with those countries applies to the immigrants they vet.

If so, the asylum-seekers could be fast-tracked for deportation back to Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras to claim asylum there. Previously, it was unclear how the agreements would be implemented.

Immigration advocates have sharply criticized the agreements with the three countries, claiming that they do not have the capabilities to process asylum-seekers and should not be deemed "safe third countries."

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"The administration has bullied the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras into signing agreements that will be deadly for people seeking asylum and is now carrying out their fatal application," said Charanya Krishnaswami, advocacy director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA.

The new rule comes on the heels of two other tough asylum policies implemented over the past six months. One, known as "Remain in Mexico" or MPP, sends asylum-seekers back into Mexico until they are allowed to return for their court date before a U.S. immigration judge. The other makes immigrants ineligible for asylum— and on the fast track for deportation — if they failed to claim asylum in any of the countries they passed through on their way to the U.S.-Mexico border.

An official from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the part of the Department of Homeland Security responsible for providing benefits to those seeking asylum, said many inside the agency are quietly incredulous that the U.S. will be removing asylum-seekers to countries like Guatemala.

"Just as with MPP, there will be people who will die as a result of these policies," the official said, due to the conditions vulnerable asylum-seekers will face in these countries. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the opinion contradicted the administration's message.

The DHS and the Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.

In the rule, the administration says processing asylum claims from Central America "consumes a tremendous amount of resources with the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security." The DHS must detain many asylum-seekers until their cases are adjudicated and, for the Justice Department, more than 476,000 asylum cases remain pending in immigration court.

The agreements between the U.S. and Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras were negotiated this summer by the former acting Homeland Security secretary, Kevin McAleenan. In return, the countries received assistance to increase law enforcement and regional security, according to DHS statements following McAleenan's trips to the countries.

McAleenan also met with representatives in the region from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which would play a critical part in helping asylum-seekers who have been deported to a country that is not their own and most likely does not have the infrastructure to review large numbers of asylum claims.

The new rule, which is expected to be officially published in the federal register Tuesday, can be found here. It is not clear when the rule will go into effect after publication.