“Safe Third Country” Agreements Stripped of Funds Amidst Accusations that ICE Knowingly Deported COVID19 to Latin America

Blogpost

On July 15, the House Committee on Appropriations delivered an initial blow to some of the Trump Administration’s latest and most egregious attacks on migrants and asylum-seekers from Central America. In a vote down party lines, Democrats prohibited the Administration from using federal funds to implement policies such as the Asylum Corporation Agreements (ACA), the Trump Administration’s June 2020 rule change to functionally end the US asylum system as we know it, and the 2018 Migrant Protection Protocols, known as the “Remain in Mexico” program, among other important and positive steps to rein in ICE and CBP.

The Asylum Cooperation Agreements, also known as “Safe Third Country” agreements were signed between the Trump administration and the governments of  Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras in 2019 and prohibit migrants who have traveled through another country before reaching the US, from applying for asylum in the US. The agreements also allow the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to transfer asylum seekers to one of the “Safe Third Countries” as a ploy to deny migrants the right to seek asylum in the US.

This policy is not only illegal according to international refugee law, but also inhumane as it places refugees fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries in similarly unsafe conditions in Northern Central America. To date, more than 900 Salvadorans and Honduras have been transferred to Guatemala to pursue asylum, but only 20 have applied and the rest have returned to their countries of origin nearby.

Opposition to the agreements, which first became operational in Guatemala in November of last year, has been mounting. On July 21, a broad coalition of migrant rights organizations from Central and North America delivered a petition with over 2000 signatures calling on Congress to “do everything within its power to stop the implementation of [the] Asylum Cooperation Agreements.” In a press release, the coalition stated that the ACAs only “aggravates the situation of people marginalized by the state, especially Indigenous Peoples, LGBTQ people, women and children” and further emphasized that “there is no agreement or policy that will stop people from seeking a place where they can live a full life that is, most importantly, free from persecution and violence.”

Another major issue of concern in Congress and to human rights defenders are the ongoing deportations during COVID. The coalition denounced the Trump Administration’s deportation policies during the pandemic, stating, “Contrary to the recommendations of international experts, the U.S. has  continued deporting migrants to their countries of origin, thereby exporting COVID-19 to countries in the Global South that lack sufficient medical resources due to their collapsed healthcare systems.” The New York Times reports that over 40,000 immigrants have been deported since March worldwide.

Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs, Michael Kozak, affirmed the Administration’s position during a July 1 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, stating that the U.S. has “sustained cooperation with other countries for the removal of Foreign Nationals” during the pandemic.

During the hearing, Representative Andy Levin (D-MI) denounced deportations to various countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, especially to Haiti. In a heated exchange, Secretary Kozak attempted to justify the Administration’s actions, stating, “[We have] continued removals from the United States because we didn't want people to start piling up… [The] calculation has been that it’s much better for people to be home with their families…” To this, Mr. Levin expressed in outrage, ”I don’t think it’s credible for this Administration to say that it is concerned about people ‘piling up’ in ICE detention facilities when we continue to detain [hundreds of people] who have nothing but a civil infraction in ICE facilities... “ Two whistleblowers in an ICE facility in Louisiana recently revealed that ICE knowingly deported migrants with fevers of 103 degrees and used other deceptive methods to ensure that immigrants would pass their temperature scans before being deported.

According to Kozak, the total number of people who tested positive for COVID-19 before being deported to Latin America is 220 out of 3700 deportations and of those 186 were reported to be Guatemalan, (though Guatemalan officials have reported more cases).  “We are still trying to figure out why the numbers are so high there,” said Kovak.  Since the beginning of the pandemic, Guatemalan and Haitian officials have denounced the U.S. for deporting people with COVID-19 symptoms.

In one statement President Alejandro Giammattei expressed, “Guatemala is an ally of the United States, but I don’t believe the U.S. is an ally to Guatemala, because they don’t treat us like one.” In contrast, the governments of Honduras and El Salvador have remained silent and have subsequently reaped the rewards, as the Trump Administration appears to be conditioning humanitarian aid on compliance with deportations during the health emergency.

In late April, Trump tweeted that he would be sending ventilators to El Salvador in exchange for the country’s cooperation with anti-migrant policies: “Just spoke to President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador. Will be helping them with Ventilators, which are desperately needed. They have worked well with us on immigration at the Southern Border!” Secretary Kozak told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that El Salvador has received 500 of the 950 total ventilators that have been donated throughout Latin America.

As of May the US had deported more than 1,500 people to El Salvador. While El Salvador’s Office of Migration and Foreign Affairs claims that “Federal flights from the U.S. are arriving without any COVID-19 positive cases,” human rights organizations and legislators from the FMLN party in El Salvador have questioned that assertion and denounced the Bukele administration's lack of transparency around how many deportees have have tested positive for COVID-19. According to a report by The Intercept and a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), Northern Central America (also referred to as the Northern Triangle) has received the most deportations flights since the pandemic started in the entire Western Hemisphere.

Help CISPES keep up the pressure on Congress to bring an end to the illegal, inhumane, and too-often deadly "safe third country" agreements and to immediately halt all deportations in light of the dangers of COVID-19. Take action here.

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