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Exclusive: Guatemala seeks to limit migrants returned under U.S. asylum agreement

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) – Guatemala’s new government is trying to limit the number of foreign migrants the United States sends its way under an agreement that makes the Central American nation a buffer zone to reduce U.S. asylum claims.

The United States has sent hundreds of Honduran and El Salvadoran asylum seekers to Guatemala under the agreement implemented in November and is now seeking to expand the program.

However, Guatemala’s priority in ongoing talks with U.S. officials is to make sure the number sent back daily does not exceed its “very limited” capacity to process new arrivals, deputy foreign minister Eduardo Hernandez told Reuters.

“We have only one runway” and one migrant reception center, Hernandez said in an interview last week. The agreement “cannot exceed our installed capacity.”

As it stands, the deal is one of a series of overlapping measures the Trump administration sees as key to bringing down irregular migration into the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump has made his performance on controlling immigration a plank of his 2020 re-election campaign.

Known as an Asylum Cooperative Agreement and signed by the previous Guatemalan government, the deal is similar to the safe third country agreement under which asylum seekers who pass through Canada must apply for refuge there rather than in the United States.

Critics of the arrangement, and similar U.S. deals with Honduras and El Salvador, say those countries do not offer adequate conditions for protecting at-risk migrants and that their asylum systems are too rudimentary to cope.

Under President Alejandro Giammattei, who took office in January, the Guatemalan government has promised to give more information about the deal, which was negotiated behind closed doors and was only partially made public.

Hernandez said the government was working with U.S. counterparts to produce clear implementation rules governing issues such as how many families with children Guatemala accepts, whether to extend the deal to more nationalities, and how many foreign asylum seekers it would take per day.

“If it is possible, we want to add an annex, something succinct, simple, direct, clear and that leaves no space for interpretation,” he told Reuters last week.

Under the initial agreement, the United States agreed to only include individual adults, but Hernandez said it was later extended to include families with children.

Casa de Migrante, a non-governmental shelter that receives the returned foreign migrants, say pregnant women and young children showing signs of chronic stress were among the people U.S. officials had placed in the program.

Data released by the Guatemalan Immigration Institute, a government agency, show that through March 3 a total of 789 people have been returned, including 311 children.

Slideshow (5 Images)

The Trump administration on Thursday announced it set aside 10,000 H2-B temporary non-agricultural work visas for Guatemalans, El Salvadorans and Hondurans, as part of a broader expansion of such visas.

The nationality-specific set-aside is unusual for such programs, and appeared to be in recognition of the asylum deals.

The deal with Honduras could be implemented imminently, acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan said on Thursday. Morgan said the United States continued to negotiate to increase the number of asylum seekers taken by Guatemala.

Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan

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