U.S. to help El Salvador handle more asylum seekers

WASHINGTON, D.C./NEW YORK (Reuters) – The United States and El Salvador on Friday agreed to attempt to reduce the flow of Central American migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border by strengthening El Salvador’s capacity to receive 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 after signing documents with El Salvador’s minister of foreign affairs, Alexandra Hill.

McAleenan added, “Individuals crossing through El Salvador should be able to seek protections there” even if they are intending to apply for asylum in the United States.

But neither official said when the arrangement would take effect or provide details on how it would be administered.

“We are going to work out operational details. This is just a broad agreement,” Hill told Reuters upon leaving the signing ceremony.

This was the latest effort by McAleenan to seal immigration deals with the Northern Triangle countries of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – where most immigrants arriving at the U.S. southern border hail from.

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, whose central presidential campaign promise was to cut down on illegal immigration.

Guatemala signed a deal that requires asylum seekers to ask for refuge in Guatemala instead of in the United States if they traveled through the former country on the way to the U.S.-Mexico border. The Guatemalan Congress, however has not ratified the deal.

The United States has a similar “safe third country” agreement with Canada.    

Immigration advocates contend 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.

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.

Even as the U.S. government has pursued these deals, the Department of Homeland Security issued a rule on July 16 that would bar most migrants from gaining U.S. asylum if they had not sought safe haven in a country they transited through first.

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. [L2N2641F4]

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