What Happens When the U.S. Outsources Asylum?
A year ago, this woman says she was paying $500 a month to the MS-13 gang in El Salvador, extortion money to keep her restaurant up and running. Then gang members murdered her son-in-law, and she and her daughter testified against them. In the past, her story might have been grounds for asylum in the United States — or at least an asylum hearing — but not anymore. That’s because the Trump administration is upending the U.S. asylum system. “So that’s a very big thing. It’s a very important signature.” And one way they’re doing it is through a deal with Guatemala, called the Asylum Cooperation Agreement, or ACA. “This landmark agreement will put the coyotes and the smugglers out of business, and stop asylum fraud and abuses.” What this means in practice is that hundreds of asylum seekers from Honduras and El Salvador have been deported, and told to seek refuge in Guatemala instead. But Guatemala is plagued by many of the same problems that people are fleeing in the first place: violence, poverty and corruption. So I came to see what asylum in Guatemala looks like. Once deported under the ACA, asylum seekers arrive at this shelter. Everyone I speak with is confused. They’d made the long journey north only to end up back nearly where they started. The woman I met earlier, the one threatened by MS-13, is also staying at the shelter. She and her daughter are applying for asylum here, but a friend warns her that the gang is tracking them. She’s one of the very few people to pursue an asylum claim here. In fact, only about 16 of more than 900 people have done so. So why does this deal exist? Even Guatemala’s newly elected president, Alejandro Giammattei, acknowledges the deal is political. And he’s right. They don’t want to stay here. It’s too close to home, and asylum here offers little protection or support. The U.S. had pledged to pump $47 million into Guatemala’s asylum system, but it’s unclear how much of that money has been received or how it’s been spent. Nevertheless, more of these deals are in the pipeline. “We entered into historic cooperation agreements with …” Soon, the Trump administration plans to implement asylum deals with Honduras and El Salvador. Those countries are even less prepared. Two days later, I meet up again with the woman who’s running from MS-13. Her situation has already gotten worse. She and her daughter can’t stay at the shelter anymore. They’ve been there a month, and yet their asylum claims could take a few months to a year to process. And that, in the end, may be the point of these deals. For the Trump administration, the goal is to stem the flow of migrants to the U.S., perhaps by convincing them not to come at all.