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U.S. Sends First Migrant To Guatemala Under Asylum Agreement

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump has made limiting immigration a central element of his presidency. And one of his policy victories came in July - a deal was struck with Guatemala. It established that nation as a so-called safe third country. And it meant a new reality for migrants arriving at the U.S. border. They could be sent back to Guatemala if they had passed through that country without seeking asylum there first. This policy has now been used for the first time. A Honduran migrant was deported from El Paso and arrived in Guatemala yesterday.

Journalist Maria Martin is in Guatemala following this case and joins us. Good morning.

MARIA MARTIN: Buenos dias, David.

GREENE: So it's so interesting. You have a big policy debate. And then you see how it begins impacting people. And we see this is the first case. So what do we know about this asylum-seeker?

MARTIN: Well, his name is Erwin Ardon of Honduras. He arrived from El Paso on a plane, basically, by himself, a plane that normally brings back over a hundred deportees. And Guatemala's minister of the interior, Enrique Degenhardt, has said that there are three options for the returned Honduran and the others who may follow. One is to be sent to the jungle province of Peten - that's a very remote and underdeveloped area that's rife with drug trafficking. Two, they could be sent back to their homeland, be it Honduras or El Salvador. And three, they could choose to stay in Guatemala. And this is under a Central American migration pact that allows free travel between the countries of the region. This migrant, Erwin Ardon, elected to go back to Honduras.

GREENE: But I wonder - I mean, this country, Guatemala, could be receiving more migrants through this policy. How are people reacting there?

MARTIN: Well, ever since it was signed in July, it's been widely unpopular here among human rights groups, civil society and just everyday people. How, they ask, can Guatemala be considered safe when thousands of Guatemalans are fleeing its high rates of poverty and violence and when the country can't even take care of its own people?

The well-known migrant advocate and Catholic priest named Mauro Verzeletti is among the Guatemalans who believe that the government here was pressured to accept the agreement.

MAURO VERZELETTI: (Foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: "It was imposed on us," says Verzeletti, "placed before us like a sword and a cross for Guatemala to sign, under the threat of economic sanctions."

Verzeletti believes the migrant returned is just the beginning of what he calls caravans in reverse - that is asylum-seekers being sent south by the U.S. government in high numbers in order for President Trump to fulfill his campaign promises.

GREENE: So what about the Guatemalan government? I mean, have they been transparently talking to people in the country about what this policy could mean?

MARTIN: Not quite. The press and analysts here never failed to mention the great secrecy in which all of this has taken place. Even before the accord was signed last July, the Guatemalan government had provided few details about how it would work. And current Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales denied for many months that this was anything resembling a safe third country agreement. And not only was there little information regarding details of these asylum accords, but the Guatemalan press has been basically playing follow-up to the U.S. press on this topic. And even Guatemala's president-elect, Alejandro Giammattei, who's scheduled to be sworn in in January, has repeatedly complained to being left out of the loop by the administration of current President Jimmy Morales.

GREENE: All right. Maria Martin is a journalist based in Antigua, Guatemala. Thanks so much for your reporting.

MARTIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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