WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Biden administration is withdrawing the U.S. from agreements with three Central American countries that restricted the ability of people to seek asylum at the southwest border, part of a broad effort to undo the immigration policies of President Donald Trump.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Saturday the administration had notified El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that it had started the formal process of terminating agreements that had been part of Trump’s effort to restrict asylum.
The agreements, which had been on hold since early in the coronavirus pandemic, required many people seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border to go instead to one of the three Central American countries and pursue their claims there.
“The Biden administration believes there are more suitable ways to work with our partner governments to manage migration across the region,” Blinken said in a statement announcing the immediate suspension of the agreements and their eventual termination.
The secretary of state said the administration intends to work with the Central American nations to reduce some of the insecurity and poverty that cause people to flee in the first place while maintaining the security of the U.S. border.
“To be clear, these actions do not mean that the U.S. border is open,” he said. “While we are committed to expanding legal pathways for protection and opportunity here and in the region, the United States is a country with borders and laws that must be enforced.”
The Trump administration pushed the Central American nations to accept the agreements as a way to reduce the number of people seeking asylum in the United States. Critics said it amounted to a U.S. retreat from its obligations under international law to help people fleeing persecution since neither of the three countries could credibly provide refuge.
Since the start of the pandemic, the U.S. has been quickly expelling nearly everyone apprehended at the border or seeking asylum under a public health law to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The Guatemalan government said in a statement it welcomed the decision to end the accord, known as a safe third country agreement.
“The Guatemalan government welcomes the statements of President Joe Biden regarding his administration’s commitment to our country and the region,” according to the statement.
President Joe Biden signed a series of executive orders Tuesday that ended Trump immigration policies or put them under review. He also set up a task force to reunite Central American families who had been forcibly separated at the border under a zero-tolerance program in 2018.
As of December, only 20 of 939 Hondurans and El Salvadorans who have been turned back from the U.S. and flown to Guatemala decided to seek asylum there, and none of those have gained final approval. With so many returning to their home countries instead, the policy instituted by former president Donald Trump became known as “deportation with a layover.”
Ursula Roldan, a research director at Guatemala’s Rafael Landívar University, said the accords had long been viewed as illegitimate, and were reached in some cases with corrupt governments under the implicit assumption that in exchange, the U.S. would ignore allegations of corruption.
“What President Biden is doing is restoring the asylum and refuge system, is equivalent to once again providing transparency and clarity on these issues, and clarity in negotiations with other countries on immigration and asylum,” Roldan said.