By Richard Cowan and Mica Rosenberg
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – The United States and El Salvador on Friday agreed to attempt to reduce the flow of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border by strengthening El Salvador’s capacity to provide for asylum seekers, but did not detail any concrete actions.
“The core of this is recognizing El Salvador’s development of their own asylum system and committing to help them build that capacity,” Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan told reporters in Washington after signing documents with El Salvador’s minister of foreign affairs, Alexandra Hill.
“Individuals crossing through El Salvador should be able to seek protections” in the Central American country even if they were intending to apply for asylum in the United States, he added.
Neither official said when the arrangement would take effect or provide details on how it would be administered. It was unclear how such a deal would work, given that most migrants from other countries take routes that avoid crossing the small, poverty-stricken El Salvador.
“We are going to work out operational details. This is just a broad agreement,” Hill told Reuters upon leaving the signing ceremony.
The agreement represents the latest effort by McAleenan to seal immigration deals with the Northern Triangle countries of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – from where many immigrants arriving at the U.S. southern border set out.
U.S. President Donald Trump has made immigration enforcement a centerpiece of his administration and is pushing to staunch the flow of migrants – many of them families – crossing into the United States. Border crossings reached record highs earlier this year, frustrating Trump.
Guatemala has signed a so-called ‘safe third country’ deal with the United States that requires asylum seekers who travel through Guatemala on the way to the U.S.-Mexico border to ask for refuge in Guatemala first, instead of in the United States. The Guatemalan Congress, however, has not ratified the deal.
The United States has a similar safe third country agreement with Canada.
Honduras, meanwhile, held talks with the United States over migration this week that will continue into next, Honduras’ foreign ministry and the U.S. Embassy said in a joint statement on Friday.
Among the topics under discussion is the possibility of requiring Cuban migrants to seek asylum in Honduras rather than the United States.
Citing fears that the United States could retaliate against Honduran exports, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez told local television on Thursday that there was a need for a region-wide agreement with Mexico, Guatemala and the United States, given increasing numbers of migrants from Cuba and Africa traversing Central America to reach the United States.
“So we believe that Honduras should also become a safe country to avoid the situation becoming more complicated,” Hernandez said.
Immigration advocates have criticized the deals, saying Central American countries where many people are fleeing from violence, poverty and endemic corruption, do not have the capacity to process more asylum claims and cannot assure safety for vulnerable migrants.
“The real goal of the United States is to make sure these (asylum) claims are never heard in a U.S. court,” said Douglas Rivlin, spokesman for Washington-based pro-immigration group America’s Voice, following the U.S.-El Salvador agreement.
El Salvador, which has 6.6 million people, is one of the world’s most violent nations, largely due to criminal gangs involved in drug trafficking and extortion.
As the U.S. government has pursued the deals, the Department of Homeland Security in parallel issued a rule that would bar most migrants from gaining U.S. asylum if they had not sought safe haven in any country they first transited through.
The rule accomplishes virtually the same thing as the agreements, but it has faced legal challenges. A federal court initially blocked the rule from taking effect, but the Supreme Court on Sept. 11 allowed it to be implemented while the court challenges are ongoing.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan in Washington, Mica Rosenberg in New York and Gustavo Palencia in Tegulcipaga; Additional reporting by Jan Wolfe in Washington and Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Rosalba O’Brien)