WASHINGTON — A union representing federal asylum officers said on Friday that a Trump administration policy that diverts migrants at the southwestern border to Guatemala unlawfully sends a vulnerable population to a country “in which their lives and freedom are directly threatened.”
In an amicus brief filed in Federal District Court in Washington, a union representing 700 asylum and refugee officers with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services said the deal with Guatemala violates international treaty obligations by deporting migrants to a country where they are likely to face persecution. Under the asylum deal, initially described as a “safe third country agreement,” the administration can deport migrants at the southwestern border seeking safety in the United States to Guatemala to seek refuge there.
“This is unlike anything they’ve seen before,” said Muhammad Faridi, a lawyer for the union, National CIS Council 119. “These people are being forced to scurry out department directives, which run contrary to the laws these people have been trained to implement.”
The accord is one of multiple policies enacted by the Trump administration that have severely restricted asylum after a surge of illegal crossings last year.
Officials at the Department of Homeland Security had said the policy would apply only to migrants who had not sought protections in Guatemala on their way to the United States. But the department indicated in January that the pact could extend to Mexican migrants, though that is not currently in effect.
Homeland Security Department officials have said the policy is meant to encourage migrants to apply for protections closer to their home countries. But in theory, it means that an asylum seeker from Juárez, Mexico, could be deported from the El Paso border crossing a mile from his home to the Guatemalan border nearly 2,000 miles away.
As of Wednesday, more than 800 Honduran and Salvadoran migrants have been sent back to Guatemala under the agreement, according to the Guatemalan Institute of Migration.
“It has turned the American asylum system on its head,” the union said in its brief, filed in support of a lawsuit against the policy. Referring to the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the filing noted, “Rather than have their asylum claims heard, refugees from the Northern Triangle countries are permanently removed to other Northern Triangle countries — which are themselves some of the most dangerous countries on earth and are the source of large numbers of refugees.”
In the brief, the asylum officers said enforcing the policy violated their oath. The State Department’s own country condition reports on Guatemala warn about rampant gang activity and high levels of violence. The country’s asylum system is also feeble compared with that of the United States; the migration office there reported that in 2018, a staff of eight processed only 262 requests for refuge.
The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Migrants at the southwestern border also no longer have a chance to relay their claims to asylum officers, according to the court filing. Before the policy took effect, an asylum seeker would normally be detained and then speak with an officer who would assess the migrant’s fear of returning to his or her home country.
Migrants eligible to be deported to Guatemala receive no such screening.
They are instead given a “tear sheet,” where they must indicate whether they fear persecution in Guatemala. Any migrant would then need to show that he or she is “more likely than not” to face such danger if forced back there.
“It’s just so contrary to anything we’ve ever been taught and our basic knowledge of refugee and asylum law,” said Jason Marks, a union steward with National CIS Council 119.
The Trump administration has credited the accord, as well as a policy that forces migrants to wait in Mexico as their cases are adjudicated, with quelling an increase in migration and relieving overcrowded detention facilities. (That policy, known as “Remain in Mexico,” was also the subject of another court filing on behalf of the asylum officers’ union.)
An appeals court in California on Wednesday granted the administration’s request to allow the restrictions to stay in effect for another week until the Supreme Court reviews them.
Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said on Thursday that the administration would also soon enforce a deal with Honduras that will deport asylum seekers there.
“I’m literally waiting to get the word any moment,” he said.
Zach Montague contributed reporting from Washington, and Kirk Semple from Guatemala City.