(CNN)The Trump administration has sent the first migrant to Guatemala as part of its agreement with the country to accept asylum seeking migrants from the US, according to Guatemalan officials.
The agreement marks a significant shift in US asylum policy as migrants who may have a legitimate claim for asylum are sent to another country to make their case.
Over recent months, the administration has been in discussions with the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to send migrants seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border to those countries. The accords bar migrants from seeking asylum in the US, with some exceptions, and allows the US to instead send asylum seekers to one of the three countries.
It’s not unusual for the government to start off small to work out the kinks, said a Homeland Security official. A similar slow-start process took place with the launch of the administration’s program to return migrants to Mexico to await immigration proceedings in the US.
Newly appointed acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf told reporters in south Texas Thursday that flights had begun, saying it’s a “phased-in process.”
The Trump administration has touted the agreements, arguing that they allow migrants to seek asylum closer to their home countries. But immigrant advocates and lawyers have pushed back, noting that the countries the US struck agreements with don’t have the infrastructure in place to support these migrants. Wolf said Thursday that the US, along with international organizations, is assisting Guatemala to accommodate migrant arrivals.
US asylum officers are receiving training on the program and have gradually begun interviewing migrants to assess whether they’re eligible to go to Guatemala, according to two sources familiar with the process. Migrants from Honduras and El Salvador are eligible to be sent back to Guatemala under this program, according to a source familiar.
Under US law, migrants are allowed to claim asylum once on US soil. There’s a caveat, however, for those who come through safe third countries, meaning countries that the US has entered into an agreement with. The United Nations’ refugee agency defines “safe country,” in part, as “being countries in which refugees can enjoy asylum without any danger.”
The US has had a safe-third agreement with Canada since 2002.
Migrants who are placed in this asylum program do not have access to counsel prior to being removed from the US, according to two sources familiar with the process.
The Guatemala accord was the first of a series of similar agreements with Central American countries. In fiscal year 2019, Customs and Border Protection apprehended and deemed inadmissible nearly one million people — the majority of whom were from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
Former acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan shepherded the agreements over recent months, taking a number of trips down to Central America.
Wolf has similarly touted the agreements. “Once in place, these agreements will build a robust asylum capacity in the entire region and allow migrants to seek humanitarian protections as close to home as possible,” he said during his three-day trip in Texas.
Critics of the department’s asylum initiatives have said sending migrants to Guatemala could put them in harm’s way.
Michael Knowles, president of a local union that represents US asylum officers, denounced the Trump administration’s asylum policies during a House hearing Tuesday, calling them “egregious” and “illegal.”
“These policies are blatantly illegal, they are immoral, and indeed are the basis for some egregious human rights violations by our own country,” Knowles testified.