‘Where are we?’

U.S. is putting asy­lum seek­ers on flights to Gu­atemala but giv­ing them lit­tle in­for­ma­tion in pro­gram that has been called a ‘to­tal dis­as­ter’

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY KEVIN SIEFF [email protected]­post.com

The United States has be­gun putting asy­lum seek­ers on flights to Gu­atemala with­out in­struc­tions about what’s next.

The char­tered U.S. govern­ment flights land here ev­ery day or two, de­posit­ing Hon­duran and Sal­vado­ran asy­lum seek­ers from the U.S. border. Many ar­rive with the same ques­tion: “Where are we?”

For the first time ever, the United States is ship­ping asy­lum seek­ers who ar­rive at its border to a “safe third coun­try” to seek refuge there. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion hopes the pro­gram will serve as a model for oth­ers in the re­gion.

But dur­ing its first weeks, asy­lum seek­ers and hu­man rights ad­vo­cates say, mi­grants have been put on planes with­out be­ing told where they were headed, and left here with­out be­ing given ba­sic in­struc­tion about what to do next.

When the mi­grants land in Gu­atemala City, they re­ceive lit­tle in­for­ma­tion about what it means to apply for asy­lum in one of the hemi­sphere’s poor­est coun­tries. Those who don’t im­me­di­ately apply are told that they must leave the coun­try in 72 hours. The form is la­beled “Vol­un­tary Re­turn.”

“In the U.S., the agents told us our cases would be trans­ferred, but they didn’t say where. Then they lined us up to get on the plane,” said a woman named Marta, 43, from Hon­duras. She sat in a mi­grant shel­ter here with her 17-year-old son, who nursed a gun­shot wound in his left cheek — the work, both say, of a Hon­duran fac­tion of the MS-13 gang.

“When we looked out the win­dow, we were here,” she said. “We thought, ‘Where are we? What are we sup­posed to do now?’ ”

Hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tions in Gu­atemala say they have recorded dozens of cases of asy­lum seek­ers who were mis­led by U.S. of­fi­cials into board­ing flights, and who were not in­formed of their asy­lum rights upon ar­rival. Of the 143 Hon­durans and Sal­vado­rans sent to Gu­atemala since the pro­gram be­gan last month, only five have ap­plied for asy­lum, ac­cord­ing to the coun­try’s mi­gra­tion agency.

“Safe third coun­try” is one of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s most dramatic ini­tia­tives to curb mi­gra­tion — an ef­fort to re­make the U.S. asy­lum sys­tem. Pres­i­dent Trump has called it “ter­rific for [Gu­atemala] and ter­rific for us.”

But an Asy­lum Co­op­er­a­tion Agree­ment is bring­ing mi­grants to a coun­try that is un­able to pro­vide eco­nomic and phys­i­cal se­cu­rity for its own ci­ti­zens — many of whom are them­selves try­ing to mi­grate. In fis­cal 2019, Gu­atemala was the largest source of mi­grants de­tained at the U.S. border, at more than 264,000. The coun­try has only a skele­tal asy­lum pro­gram, with fewer than a dozen asy­lum of­fi­cers.

As the deal was ne­go­ti­ated, it drew con­cerns from the United Na­tions and hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tions. But its im­ple­men­ta­tion, ad­vo­cates say, has been worse than they feared.

“It’s a to­tal dis­as­ter,” said Thelma Shau, who has ob­served the ar­rival of asy­lum seek­ers at La Aurora In­ter­na­tional Air­port in her role over­see­ing mi­gra­tion is­sues for Gu­atemala’s hu­man rights om­buds­man.

“They ar­rive here with­out be­ing told that Gu­atemala is their des­ti­na­tion,” she said. “They are asked, ‘Do you want refuge here or do you want to leave?’ And they have lit­er­ally min­utes to de­cide with­out know­ing any­thing about what that means.”

The Gu­atemalan govern­ment says that it ex­plains asy­lum op­tions and that mi­grants are sim­ply choos­ing to leave vol­un­tar­ily.

“Cen­tral Amer­i­can peo­ple are given com­pre­hen­sive at­ten­tion when they ar­rive in the coun­try, and re­spect for their hu­man rights is a pri­or­ity,” said Ale­jan­dra Mena, a spokes­woman for Gu­atemala’s mi­gra­tion agency. “The in­for­ma­tion pro­vided is com­plete for them to make a de­ci­sion.”

The Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment. The United States has signed sim­i­lar “safe third coun­try” agree­ments with El Sal­vador and Hon­duras, but they have not yet been im­ple­mented. In re­cent days, Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have said they are con­sid­er­ing send­ing Mex­i­can asy­lum seek­ers to Gu­atemala to seek refuge.

Hu­man rights groups in Gu­atemala that have ob­served the process say mi­grants here are not given key in­for­ma­tion about their op­tions — such as what asy­lum in Gu­atemala en­tails and where they would stay while their claims are be­ing pro­cessed. Many mi­grants are aware that Gu­atemala suf­fers from the same gang vi­o­lence and ex­tor­tion that forced them from their home coun­tries.

Paula Arana ob­served the ori­en­ta­tion as child pro­tec­tion li­ai­son for the hu­man rights om­buds­man.

“It’s clear that the govern­ment is not pro­vid­ing enough in­for­ma­tion for asy­lum seek­ers to make a de­ci­sion, es­pe­cially in the three min­utes they are given,” she said. “In­stead, they are be­ing pushed out of the coun­try.”

The United States had sug­gested that it would be­gin im­ple­ment­ing the agree­ment by send­ing sin­gle men to Gu­atemala. But less than a month af­ter it be­gan, fam­i­lies with young chil­dren are ar­riv­ing on the char­ter flights. Last week, Arana said, a 2-year-old ar­rived with flu­like symp­toms.

On Thurs­day, a man named Jorge, 35, his wife and two daugh­ters, ages 11 and 15, landed here. A day later, they were clus­tered to­gether at the Casa del Mi­grante, a shel­ter in Gu­atemala City where govern­ment of­fi­cials took them in a bus. They had been given the pa­pers with 72 hours’ no­tice to leave Gu­atemala, and couldn’t fig­ure out what to do.

The fam­ily had fled mul­ti­ple threats from gangs in Hon­duras, which started with an in­ter­per­sonal dis­pute be­tween Jorge’s wife and one of the gang’s lead­ers. Jorge was cer­tain that go­ing back would mean cer­tain death. Like Marta, Jorge did not want his last name to be pub­lished out of fear for his fam­ily’s safety.

“We’re think­ing about our op­tions. We know we can’t stay here.

What would I do? Where would we stay?” he said. “Maybe we need to try to cross to the United States again.”

The Of­fice of the U.N. High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees is not par­tic­i­pat­ing in the pro­gram. But of­fi­cials say they’re aware of prob­lems with its im­ple­men­ta­tion.

“UNHCR has a num­ber of con­cerns re­gard­ing the Asy­lum Co­op­er­a­tion Agree­ment and its im­ple­men­ta­tion,” said Sibylla Brodzin­sky, UNHCR’S re­gional spokes­woman for Cen­tral Amer­ica and Mexico. “We have ex­pressed th­ese con­cerns to the rel­e­vant U.S. and Gu­atemalan au­thor­i­ties.”

Hu­man rights ad­vo­cates who have in­ter­viewed the asy­lum seek­ers, known lo­cally as “trans­feri­dos,” say many have de­cided that their best op­tion is to mi­grate again to the United States. Smug­glers of­ten of­fer their cus­tomers three chances to make it across the border.

Mi­grants at the Casa del Mi­grante de­scribed spend­ing a week in Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment cus­tody in the United States, where they had in­tended to make their asy­lum claims. Many car­ried binders full of ev­i­dence they as­sumed would bol­ster their cases. On her phone, Marta saved a video of her son be­ing tor­tured by MS-13 gang mem­bers.

But in their brief con­ver­sa­tions with U.S. im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials, they were told they would not be given a chance to apply for asy­lum in the United States.

“We had all this in­for­ma­tion to show them,” Marta said, leaf­ing through pho­tos of her son’s scars and Hon­duran court doc­u­ments. “They said, ‘ That’s not go­ing to help you here.’ ”

In in­ter­views with The Wash­ing­ton Post, some mi­grants said they were told vaguely that their cases were be­ing “trans­ferred.” Oth­ers were told they were go­ing to be re­turned to their coun­tries of ori­gin.

“One agent told me, ‘You’re go­ing back to Hon­duras,’ ” Marta said. But then they ar­rived in Gu­atemala City.

“When we looked out the win­dow, we just as­sumed it was a stop,” her son said.

Marta thought Gu­atemala might be even more dan­ger­ous. They had no con­nec­tion to the coun­try and nowhere to stay be­yond their first few days. When she left the mi­grant shel­ter to buy food Fri­day morn­ing, she said, she stum­bled upon a crime scene with a dead body a few blocks away.

Dur­ing their nine-day de­ten­tion at an ICE fa­cil­ity in Texas, she said, the fam­ily shared a cell with a Gu­atemalan fam­ily that was flee­ing vi­o­lence per­pe­trated by a dif­fer­ent MS-13 group based here.

“Why would they send us to a coun­try where the same gangs are op­er­at­ing?” she asked.

In the ab­sence of a thor­ough ex­pla­na­tion of their asy­lum rights in Gu­atemala, El Refu­gio de la Niñez is of­fer­ing a short tu­to­rial to the asy­lum seek­ers. So far, 45 have at­tended.

“The Gu­atemalan govern­ment is com­pletely ab­sent in this whole process,” said Leonel Dubon, the di­rec­tor of the U.n.-funded cen­ter. “It sends a clear mes­sage. The govern­ment isn’t here to of­fer shel­ter, it’s here to push peo­ple out as quickly as pos­si­ble.”

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ne­go­ti­ated the “safe third coun­try” agree­ment last year with lame­duck Gu­atemalan Pres­i­dent Jimmy Mo­rales.

Gu­atemala’s con­sti­tu­tional court ini­tially blocked the deal. Then Trump threat­ened tar­iffs on the coun­try and taxes on re­mit­tances sent home by Gu­atemalans liv­ing in the United States. It was even­tu­ally signed in July.

The new Gu­atemalan pres­i­dent, Ale­jan­dro Gi­ammat­tei, was sworn in Tues­day. He has raised con­cerns about the agree­ment, say­ing he hadn’t been briefed on its de­tails.

At the sign­ing cer­e­mony, Trump said it would “pro­vide safety for le­git­i­mate asy­lum seek­ers, and stop asy­lum fraud and abuses [of the] sys­tem.”

U.S. asy­lum of­fi­cers do not vet the cases of mi­grants be­fore they are sent to Gu­atemala.

In her brief con­ver­sa­tions with U.S. im­mi­gra­tion agents, Marta tried to get them to look at her binder of doc­u­ments and pho­tos.

“They weren’t in­ter­ested,” she said. “They just kept say­ing that your case will be trans­ferred to an in­sti­tu­tion that can han­dle it.”

VIC­TOR J. BLUE/BLOOMBERG NEWS

A woman car­ries flow­ers on the roof of a home in Gu­atemala City. A U.S. asy­lum pact is bring­ing mi­grants to the coun­try, which can­not pro­vide se­cu­rity for its own ci­ti­zens.

OLIVER DE ROS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Stu­dents protest be­fore the leg­isla­tive vote that made Gu­atemala a “safe third coun­try” for those seek­ing asy­lum in the United States.

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