U.S. and Guatemala reach refugee deal but all Hell breaks loose
President Donald Trump speaks to the media in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, July 26, 2019. | AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

On Friday, July 26, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. and Guatemala had signed a “third safe country agreement,” meaning that people fleeing El Salvador and Honduras with the intention of seeking asylum in the United States would have to stay in Guatemala and ask for asylum from there. The details of the deal have not yet been made fully known, but apparently, it includes opening up more possibilities for Guatemalans to come to the United States as temporary guest workers in agriculture and perhaps other economic areas. The agreement was signed by Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart and acting U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan, with Trump showing up personally for the occasion.

This announcement came on the heels of bloodcurdling threats Trump had made against Guatemala if it didn’t agree to play this role. Right-wing, lame-duck Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales had initially agreed to the deal, causing outrage and incredulity in Guatemala itself.

Activists and political leaders from left, right and center pointed out that the Guatemalan government is in no position to carry out such an arrangement, which could flood this very poor Central American nation of 17 million people with tens or hundreds of thousands of refugees. The country does not have the resources to feed, house and provide health care and schooling even for its own impoverished inhabitants, let alone migrants and refugees that Trump claims are too many to fit into the United States.

Moreover, as Guatemalan and international human rights defenders quickly pointed out, by no criterion can Guatemala right now be considered a “safe” third country for refugees. that, with growing poverty and environmental degradation, leads people to flee Honduras and El Salvador, is also present in Guatemala. A large proportion of the migrants and refugees that Trump is trying to keep out of the United States are themselves Guatemalans.

Members of Guatemala’s unicameral Congress were also indignant because Morales’s government did not submit the proposed deal to them for debate and approval or disapproval. Amilcar Pop, a member of Congress from the left-wing Winaq party, expressed the views of many: “It seems to us right and proper to put the brakes on the irresponsible impulse of the president and the government. The Winaq political movement has taken its position; we do not agree with the capricious way the president wants to turn Guatemala into the carpeted back yard of the United States.”

So they took the issue to the country’s supreme Constitutional Court, which ruled that Morales did not indeed have the right to agree to such a thing without congressional input and approval. Morales then showed signs of backing down, and cancelled a presumed signing ceremony in Washington.

But that was the calm before the storm. President Trump blew his stack, accusing Guatemala of betrayal. He threatened Guatemala with tariffs. He intimated he might stop legal travel from Guatemala to the United States and hinted he might grab some of the money people living in the United States send as “remittances” to their families and communities in Guatemala, an important lifeline for the latter country—the remittances are estimated to be eleven percent of its Gross National Product. Trump’s chief advisor for Latin American Affairs, Mauricio Claver-Carone, suggested that the United States might impose sanctions on the Guatemalan legislators who brought the case to the court. According to a report in the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre, Claver-Carone, a hard-line product of Miami’s Cuban exile right, went so far as to suggest that Guatemalan congresspersons opposed to the deal were controlled by criminal elements who profit from immigrant smuggling.

Then it was Jimmy Morales’s turn to blow his stack, but not against Trump. On July 23, he issued a statement, not defending Guatemala against Trump’s threats, but denouncing the Constitutional Court and his opponents in Congress of wanting to “destabilize” the country by antagonizing the United States, which he characterizes as Guatemala’s best friend. He claimed, moreover, that neither the Court nor the Congress had the right to interfere in the matter.

But this did not stop the criticisms. On August 11, Guatemala will have a run-off presidential election, between the two highest vote-getting candidates in the June 16 first round (according to the constitution, Morales could not run for re-election). Both the candidates in the runoff, centrist Sandra Torres of the UNE party and right-winger Alejandro Giammattei of the VAMOS party, expressed opposition to the Trump-Morales deal because they see it as a vague agreement negotiated in secrecy.

Many civil society entities joined the chorus of condemnation. Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman, Jordan Rodas, says he is looking at possible legal options to stop the deal. The Alianza por las Reformas, an anti-corruption organization that is focused on Guatemala’s many, and enormous, political scandals, demanded that “the government and Congress of the republic…not bow down in a servile manner to the pressures and extortion of Donald Trump.” Amnesty International issued a sharply worded denunciation.

In the United States, U.S. Rep. Norma Torres (D-California), herself an immigrant from Guatemala, questioned the agreement on the grounds that today, Guatemala can hardly be considered a “safe” country even for its own people, let alone for refugees fleeing other countries. She characterized the deal as an “insult to common sense.“ How much congressional and public opposition there will be to the deal here in the United States is yet to be seen.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.