Is Trump Planning to Use Guatemala as a Wall?

Trump will meet with Guatemala’s president next week, and a “safe third country” agreement is reportedly on the table.

Migrants and residents use a makeshift raft to illegally cross the Suchiate river, from Tecun Uman, in Guatemala, to Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, on June 14th, 2019.

On Monday, President Donald Trump will host Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales in the White House. The meeting between Trump and Morales, a former blackface television comedian, comes after months of United States officials trying to negotiate a “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala.

A safe third country agreement with Guatemala would make any asylum seeker who first passed through that country ineligible for asylum in the U.S.—instead, they would be returned to Guatemala and advised to seek asylum there. The plan would, in a way, turn Guatemala into a wall between the U.S. and Honduras and El Salvador, where violence, impunity, entrenched poverty, and political corruption have sent thousands fleeing northward. Most of the migrants and refugees leaving Honduras and El Salvador (as well as many people fleeing from Nicaragua or leaving South America) pass over land routes through Guatemala.

The potential agreement has already met with aggressive backlash in both the U.S. and Guatemala. In Guatemala, three former foreign ministers have asked the country’s constitutional court to block any potential agreement. (Though a spokesperson for Morales told the Associated Press that the purpose of Monday’s meeting is not to sign a safe third country agreement, multiple U.S. officials also told the AP that the deal was on the table.)

In the U.S., refugee rights organizations have protested a possible third country agreement, calling it a bastardization of international refugee laws. Safe third country agreements are not unprecedented—for instance, the U.S. has such an agreement with Canada. But the difference, advocates contend, is that Canada is a genuinely safe third country, while Guatemala is plagued by the gang violence and political corruption that afflict other Central American countries.

“Guatemala comes nowhere near meeting U.S. legal requirements for a safe country for refugee returns,” Eleanor Acer, the senior director of refugee protection at the advocacy organization Human Rights First, said in a statement. “The U.S. government’s own reports confirm Guatemala is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, where women face extremely high rates of murder and both women and children are targets of sex trafficking.”

In recent years, Guatemala has been one of the top 20 countries with the highest violent death rates. The country is also contending with climate change-fueled droughts in its highlands, and its ongoing presidential election is rife with accusations of fraud and corruption.
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