Despite criticism, US signs third migration agreement in Northern Triangle

Migrants from Central America and Cuba queue outside the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance to apply for asylum and refugee status in Mexico. Photo by: REUTERS / Jose Torres

WASHINGTON — Hours after U.S. lawmakers questioned Trump administration migration deals with Guatemala and El Salvador in a pair of hearings on Capitol Hill, the U.S. signed a third such agreement with Honduras at the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

A statement from both governments said the deal, signed by acting Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan, would “expand bilateral initiatives to confront irregular migration through Central America” and “further enhance asylum and protection capacity in Honduras.” As with the agreements with Guatemala and El Salvador, its text was not immediately available.

In front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday morning, acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemispheric Affairs Michael Kozak defended the safe third country agreement signed with Guatemala in July, and the migration cooperation framework signed with El Salvador on Friday. Both were reached as part of the Trump administration’s strategy to keep people from the Northern Triangle — one of the most violent regions in the world — from reaching the U.S. border to request asylum.

“Something had to change. Consistent with the president’s guidance earlier this year, the [State] Department reprogrammed certain assistance intended for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to other countries,” Kozak said. “This reprogramming was designed to send a wake- up call to the governments that they need to do more to address outward migration and the factors that drive it. The administration identified the immediate problem and what the governments of these countries could do to address it.”

Is 'blocking movement' a measure of US aid success in Northern Triangle?

Reorienting all U.S. foreign assistance in the Northern Triangle would fundamentally change the way organizations can respond to challenges in the region.

Trump cut off aid in March, and McAleenan announced on Monday that foreign assistance that serves American interests in the Northern Triangle would be resumed. The Office of Management and Budget allocated $47 million of State Department funds in the effort to help Guatemala strengthen its asylum capacity as stipulated in the safe third country agreement, Kozak said.

Funding will provide technical support for the expansion of asylum and reception systems; shelter and integration assistance for asylum seekers and refugees; and counseling and transportation to home country under an assisted voluntary returns program, a State Department spokesperson told Devex. It will also support regional awareness campaigns on the dangers of irregular migration, and regional migration-management capacity building and resettlement operations.

The money is a new allocation from the Migration and Refugee Assistance account and is not part of the funds that were halted in March. It will be programmed through international humanitarian organizations over the next several months, the spokesperson said.

It is not clear if similar funds will be provided for implementation of the El Salvador and Honduras agreements.

Asked by several Democratic members, Kozak declined to comment on whether he thought Guatemala is a safe country. His own department’s travel warning notes that “violent crime, such as armed robbery and murder, is common.” He defended the administration’s leveraging of foreign assistance to the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to get them to do more to stem migration.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is say to the governments there, ‘you need to get serious about this. You need to really do the reforms that are going to attract investment and make your economies strong and give your people a chance and a future in their own countries,’” Kozak said. “We can train people and create capacity within their bureaucracy all day long, but if you don’t have the political will to use that capacity, and allow what’s traditionally gone on there to continue, that’s the problem.”

‘The only metric that matters’

Lawmakers and aid experts in the U.S. and Central America have been frustrated that the text of the agreements with Guatemala and El Salvador have not been made public. Kozak said in the hearing that despite the administration’s failure to turn over the text of the agreements to the committee after being requested to do so, there was nothing “greatly secretive” about them. When pressed by Ranking Member Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, Kozak said the State Department would provide the information to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“We will be sure to get it to you,” Kozak said.

The administration is also considering changes to the H-2A visa program, which allows agricultural workers temporary legal status in the U.S. to work. They could then earn money and return home, Kozak said.

Menendez accused Trump of “intentionally fueling regional instability” by cutting off aid and leaving vulnerable people in harm’s way. He called the safe third country agreement with Guatemala a “twisted attempt at a joke.”

“With one of the highest homicide rates in the world, the Guatemalan government cannot even protect its own citizens. Guatemala’s obvious lack of capacity to carry out this agreement will only fuel more regional instability,” Menendez said.

Of the agreement signed last week with El Salvador, he said, “Given that El Salvador has recently held the title of the world’s murder capital, any agreement to send asylum seekers back to El Salvador is incredibly distrubing.”

Since President Donald Trump announced in March that he would be cutting off foreign assistance to the Northern Triangle, implementers, NGOs, and U.S. missions in the region have remained largely in the dark about if or when money may start flowing again. In a separate hearing Wednesday, Catholic Relief Services senior technical advisor for Latin America Rick Jones said the U.S. actions reverse NGO progress made and damage American credibility in the region.

“Anti-corruption programs need to be combined with development that allow us a seat at the table to continue to foster good governance and good spending,” Jones told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Civilian Security, and Trade.

Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Kirsten Madison, who appeared alongside Kozak in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that whether programs executed by her department in the region were effective in their stated purpose was irrelevant.

“These programs — while they programmatically can be effective — our secretary testified on the Hill and made the absolutely critical point for this administration, which is the only metric that matters is the question of what the migration situation looks like on the southern border,” Madison said.

About the author

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    Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Reporter with Devex based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa wrote about Latin America from McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She worked as a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.