By Mica Rosenberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Honduras signed a deal with the U.S. government on Wednesday that could push migrants who cross the country on the way to the United States back to seek asylum, in the latest bilateral deal with Central American countries aimed at curbing migration.
Wednesday’s “safe third country”-type deal is similar to agreements signed by El Salvador on Sept. 20 and Guatemala on July 26. The countries have released few details about how the agreements would be implemented.
The Honduras deal “will allow migrants to seek protection as close to home as possible,” said a senior U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official who told reporters about the deal in a conference call on condition of anonymity.The official did not say why he did not want to be named.
The Trump administration is moving forward with a July 16 rule that would bar most migrants from gaining U.S. asylum if they did not seek safe haven in a country they transited through first.
The rule, which accomplishes virtually the same thing being sought by the agreements, has faced legal challenges, however. A federal court initially blocked it from taking effect but the U.S. Supreme Court on Sept. 11 allowed it to be implemented while the court challenges are ongoing.
The bulk of migrants – mostly families – arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border are from the three northern triangle countries and many turn themselves in to border officials to ask for asylum in the United States.
President Donald Trump has made reducing the ballooning number of asylum claims, which have led to long backlogs in U.S. immigration courts, a top priority of his administration and has implemented a series of measures to try to discourage migrants from applying.
But immigrant advocates say sending people seeking refuge back to the region where they fled, even if not to their home country, violates international commitments meant to prevent vulnerable migrants from being returned to danger. The three countries have tiny asylum offices that could have trouble adequately processing a large number of claims, they say.
Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez has faced scrutiny over a court filing document related to the upcoming drug trafficking trial in New York of his brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernandez. The president has denied any wrongdoing.
In a speech on Wednesday before the UN General Assembly, Hernandez again defended his political reputation against what he called “smears” from “criminals” and others, without outright referring to the allegations against him.
(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Delphine Schrank in Mexico City; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)