WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration said Tuesday that it signed an agreement with El Salvador’s government to send asylum-seekers who reach U.S. borders to the Central American nation with an opportunity to seek protection there instead. The agreement is modeled on arrangements that the U.S. has reached with El Salvador’s neighbors, Guatemala and Honduras.
Only 20 of 939 Hondurans and El Salvadorans who have been turned back from the U.S. and flown to Guatemala decided to seek asylum there. With so many returning to their home countries instead, the policy became known as “deportation with a layover.”
Flights to Guatemala began late last year and were halted when the coronavirus struck. Flights to Honduras were expected to begin earlier this year, but the pandemic put them on indefinite hold.
The Homeland Security Department didn’t give an anticipated start date for flights to El Salvador, but it will almost certainly hinge on the pandemic’s retreat and President-elect Joe Biden’s policies.
Without identifying eligible nationalities or criteria, Homeland Security said “certain migrants requesting asylum or similar humanitarian protection at the U.S. border will be transferred to El Salvador to seek protection in El Salvador.”
Chad Wolf, on what will likely one of his last trips as acting secretary, said on a visit to El Salvador this week that the latest agreement is “a critical step in the establishment of a truly regional approach to migration.”
Critics say conditions in the Central American countries are woefully inadequate for asylum-seekers. The U.S. State Department says organized criminal groups in El Salvador commit murder, extortion, kidnapping and human trafficking against “members of vulnerable populations” and other groups.
The Trump administration eagerly pursued “Asylum Cooperative Agreements” to deny asylum-seekers a chance to seek protection in the United States and instead send them elsewhere.
Biden pledged on his campaign website to end Trump’s “detrimental” asylum policies but did not specifically mention the asylum agreements with Central American governments. Representatives of his transition team did not immediately respond to requests for comment.