White House Reaches Asylum Deal With El Salvador

President Donald Trump talks with reporters on Wednesday as he tours a section of the southern border wall, in Otay Mesa, Calif., as acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan listens. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Trump administration on Friday signed an immigration agreement with El Salvador that could allow the United States to send asylum seekers who arrive at the southern border to the Central American country, which ranks as one of the most dangerous in the world.

While the specifics of the deal are not yet clear, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said Friday the crux of the “cooperative agreement” is that the United States will help El Salvador continue to develop its asylum system. He said it is possible the U.S. could use the agreement going forward to force people to seek refuge in El Salvador if they pass through the country on their way to the United States to claim asylum.

McAleenan added that the two countries will work out the specific details of the deal in the near future.

The agreement, the text of which was not immediately available, is similar to a separate agreement the Trump administration struck with Guatemala in July, though it does not immediately go as far. The so-called “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala requires migrants on their way to theĀ United States to first apply for protections in Guatemala.

“This will build on the good work we have accomplished already with El Salvador’s neighbor, Guatemala, in building protection capacity to try to further our efforts to provide opportunities to seek protection for political, racial, religious or social group persecution as close as possible to the origin of individuals who need it,” McAleenan told reporters Friday after signing the agreement.

El Salvador Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill said her country is hoping for increased investment from the United States and other countries on issues like border security and information sharing related to immigration. She hailed recently elected Salvadorian President Nayib Bukele for bringing the country into cooperation with the United States.

“There’s a series of issues from which we need help, but we are really working together with the U.S. to tackle them, something that had not been done in the last 15 years,” Hill said at the press conference Friday.

Beset by gang violence, El Salvador ranks among the most dangerous countries in the world, leading advocacy groups to express concern that people could be put in danger if they are forced to seek asylum in El Salvador under the agreement.

“El Salvador falls nowhere near meeting U.S. legal requirements for a safe third country for asylum returns,” Eleanor Acer, the senior director of refugee protection at Human Rights First, said in a statement. “Not only is it one of the most dangerous countries in the world, but it does not have the capacity to actually provide asylum. Dressing this agreement up with a different title changes nothing, it is not a safe country for returns.”

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