By Sofia Menchu
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) – A Honduran man flew from El Paso, Texas, to Guatemala City on a nearly empty Boeing 737 on Thursday, the first foreign asylum seeker sent back under a U.S. agreement designating Guatemala as a so-called safe third country for people fleeing persecution.
The program, similar to those in Europe that push asylum seekers to Turkey, is a policy achievement for U.S. President Donald Trump. He has made cracking down on immigration a central plank of his 2020 re-election campaign.
The arrival of the Honduran man, Erwin Ardon, in the Guatemalan capital marks a historic shift in how the United States treats people seeking asylum protections away from its embrace of refugees.
Guatemalan foreign ministry spokeswoman Marta Larra said Ardon was accompanied by only a few employees of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on the cavernous plane.
“Imagine sending back one person – the remedy proves to be more expensive than the disease,” Guatemalan President-elect Alejandro Giammattei said at an event Thursday afternoon.
Democrats and activists say it is irresponsible to send vulnerable people to seek shelter in Guatemala, with its high murder rates, tiny asylum system and weak rule of law.
Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart said his government would process anybody who wanted to apply for asylum, but noted that United Nations immigration and asylum agencies would be responsible for providing shelter during their stay.
Degenhart previously told Reuters he expected some of the returnees would go home to El Salvador and Honduras. The U.N. International Organization for Migration (IOM) said this week the United States had provided it with $10 million to help migrants voluntarily return from Guatemala to their homelands.
“The (Honduran asylum-seeker) who arrived requires shelter and we’re working with organizations to offer this help,” IOM spokeswoman Melissa Vega said in an interview.
Ardon’s official paperwork with Guatemala’s migration agency showed his authorization to stay in the country will expire in three days, according to a copy of the document seen by Reuters.
Vega said Ardon will not be seeking asylum in Guatemala, but will be transported to Honduras under the IOM program, which also includes temporary food and medical care. He is due to undergo a medical evaluation, including a psychological check, to ensure he is fit to travel, the IOM said.
Degenhart said more flights from the United States carrying foreign asylum-seekers are expected next week, but that it was not clear how many would be returned.
The new effort began after the U.S. government brokered an agreement with Guatemala in July. The deal allows U.S. immigration officials to make migrants requesting asylum at the U.S.-Mexican border apply for asylum in Guatemala first.
The Trump administration has worked to restrict asylum access in the United States to curb the number of mostly Central American families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump has previously said the United States is “full” and has often described would-be asylum seekers and other migrants as prone to committing violent crime.
U.S. officials this week said the program initially would be applied in El Paso. A first phase will target adults from Honduras and El Salvador and the aim will be to process them within 72 hours, according to the officials.
Critics contend asylum seekers face danger in Guatemala, where the murder rate is five times that of the United States, according to 2017 data compiled by the World Bank.
Refugees International, an advocacy organization, argues that Trump is seeking to “shift the burden” of processing asylum seekers to countries like Guatemala, from which more than 100,000 fled to seek U.S. asylum last year.
“The countries in Central America aren’t safe to return refugees to,” said Yael Schacher, an advocate with Refugees International, in an interview. “Those are refugee-producing countries and they aren’t able to receive refugees right now, they don’t have the capacity to process asylum seekers.”
Giammattei, who takes office in January, has said he will review the agreement.
(Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Additional reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Lisa Shumaker and Richard Chang)