‘Stay in Central America’ Program Boots Up

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — The United States has begun carrying out a major policy shift on asylum that’s a top priority of President Donald Trump, returning a Honduran refuge-seeker to Guatemala to pursue his asylum case.

Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday that the Honduran man had reached the U.S. border at El Paso, Texas, but was sent to Guatemala on Thursday.

Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart said that more flights with returned asylum seekers are expected next week.

“We are waiting for the U.S. government to tell us how many people are ready” for return, Degenhart said.

Under a July agreement between the United States and Guatemala, asylum-seekers have to file claims in Guatemala rather than the United States if they crossed through Guatemala on their way to the U.S. border. The agreement primarily affects immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador, whose land routes to the United States pass through Guatemala.

Critics denounce the policy as inhumane, for sending asylum-seekers to a country such as Guatemala that is plagued by rampant violence and poverty, and there are doubts whether the country can guarantee safe conditions for the deportees. So far this year, 49,000 of Guatemala’s own citizens have been deported from the United States.

The policy is one of several aggressive moves by the Trump administration to deal with immigration. That includes forcing thousands of asylum-seekers to wait in dangerous Mexico border towns for their cases to be rejected in U.S. courts.

Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said the Trump administration intends to send immigrants from El Paso and possibly other border towns to Guatemala City. He said officials in Guatemala are establishing “reception centers” staffed with asylum officers to process the deportees.

It’s unclear how many will decide to pursue asylum in Guatemala or just return to their home countries.

Degenhart said deportees are asked what they want to do when they are sent back to Guatemala, and in this case, the unnamed Honduran man changed his mind.

“In this case, the Honduran gentleman has asked for assistance to return to his home country,” Degenhart told reporters.

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