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Asylum-Seekers Reaching U.S. Border Are Being Flown To Guatemala

Central American migrants, sent from the United States, walk out in the streets of Guatemala City after arriving at the airport on Feb. 13, 2020. When asylum-seekers land in Guatemala, they are processed by immigration and asked if they want to stay in Guatemala or return to their countries. They are given 72 hours to decide.
Oliver de Ros

Hundreds of asylum-seekers who reach the Texas-Mexico border aren't getting a chance to make their case in U.S. immigration court.

Instead, the migrants — mostly women and children — are put on planes to Guatemala and told to ask for asylum in that country.

Alicia, who asked that we not use her last name, is one of more than 800 migrants from Honduras and El Salvador who have been sent to Guatemala under an Asylum Cooperative Agreement.

After traveling for weeks from Honduras with her teenage son, Alicia said she was floored when a U.S. border official raised the possibility that they would be sent to Guatemala.

"I told him I had nothing to do with Guatemala and that I didn't know anyone in Guatemala, so what could I possibly do there?" she said.

The interview lasted five minutes, Alicia said. She never got a chance to fully explain why she was seeking protection in the U.S. or that she was trying to reconnect with family.

Afterward, she and her son waited a week in immigrant detention.

Alicia said the facility was extremely cold, and the guards yelled at them, saying "ugly things." One morning before sunrise, they were escorted onto a bus headed to a nearby airport.

"We weren't sure if they were sending us to Guatemala, if they'd send us to Mexico, or if they'd send us to El Salvador or Honduras," Alicia said. "We had absolutely no clue."

A life-changing decision

The Trump administration says the Asylum Cooperative Agreement helps drive down the number of migrants asking for asylum in the U.S.

"For the ninth straight month in a row, we've continued to make incredible progress along the southwest border," Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner for Customs and Border Protection, said at a press conference last week.

But critics say the U.S. is sending asylum-seekers back to dangerous places.

In January, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration's Asylum Cooperative Agreement with Guatemala. The country is grappling with gang violence and economic hardship.

Alicia said she had been threatened by gangs in her home country, and that's why she and her son left Honduras.

According to the Guatemalan Institute for Migration, some of the flights sending asylum-seekers to Guatemala under this policy are coming from an airport in Brownsville, Texas.

Protesters, such as Joshua Rubin with Witness at the Border, gather every weekday outside the Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport.

"These people fled a situation, most likely that threatened their lives and we're flying them back into those places where their lives are in danger," Rubin said.

From beyond a chain-link fence, the protesters watch shackled migrants as they are escorted onto planes.

Diane Sonde, an activist from Brooklyn, N.Y., said airport officials have parked vehicles in front of them to block their view and even sent police officers to move them.

"I asked them how they could sleep at night and how would they feel if this was their children and their families," Sonde said. "They wouldn't even look us in the eye."

Once in the air, many of the migrants still don't know where they're going, said Charanya Krishnaswami with Amnesty International USA.

"Not even understanding that that's where you're going and only realizing it upon landing and that complete lack of orientation, that complete lack of counseling, I think exacerbates existing traumas and creates new ones," Krishnaswami said.

She recently traveled to Guatemala to document how this agreement is playing out on the ground there. She found disoriented migrants who were given very little time to make a life-changing decision.

"They're told they have 72 hours to decide whether they want to seek asylum in Guatemala, or whether they want to accept voluntary return," Krishnaswami said.

"They don't feel safe there"

Ariana Sawyer, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, also traveled to Guatemala recently, to document how the Asylum Cooperative Agreement is being implemented.

"Nobody I spoke to felt like seeking asylum in Guatemala was a viable option for them," Sawyer said. "As a result it's really difficult to locate these people, to keep track of them, to find out what they're going through, to give them any kind of support because they're not staying in Guatemala. They don't feel safe there."

Only about 16 migrants have decided to apply for asylum in Guatemala, according to officials there. The others are mostly unaccounted for. Some have gone home, while others, such as Alicia, plan on trekking north again.

Alicia still hopes to make it to the U.S. one day to reunite with family.

"I'm hiding in my country while I try to gather some money to try and return," she said.

The U.S. wants Guatemala to accept even more migrants. The administration also hopes to start sending migrants back to Honduras under a similar agreement.

Copyright 2020 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.