Guatemala Is No Safe Third Country

Why the Asylum Deal Is a Mistake

Central American migrants cross the river between Mexico and Guatemala, October 2018 Reuters / Carlos Garcia Rawlins

On July 26, under pressure from Washington, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales signed a deal with U.S. President Donald Trump that would fundamentally alter the landscape of migration and asylum in the Americas. The deal, known as a “safe third country” agreement, stipulates that the U.S. government can deport asylum seekers to Guatemala if they passed through that country during their journey to the U.S.-Mexican border. The agreement serves Trump’s agenda of preventing asylum seekers from entering the United States—but it does so by shifting the burden onto Guatemala, making that country responsible for processing and caring for tens of thousands of asylum seekers.

The “safe third country” agreement will strain Guatemala’s asylum system and its already-struggling economy. Not surprisingly, it has met widespread opposition in Guatemala. The country’s Constitutional Court went so far as to impose a temporary injunction, which prevented the plan from being implemented. But now the agreement’s fate lies in the hands of a new Guatemalan president.

In mid-August—less than a month after the deal was signed—the right-wing politician Alejandro Giammattei squeaked to victory in a second-round presidential vote. He will take office on January 14, 2020. As a candidate, Giammattei publicly criticized the agreement with the United States, saying that it is “not right” for Guatemala and pledging to ameliorate it. But tweaks to the deal will not be enough. The agreement outsources the United States’ legal obligations to asylum seekers, risks tens of thousands of lives, and destabilizes a region already vulnerable to humanitarian disasters. Guatemalans should demand better from their Congress.


Guatemala is a strange choice for a “safe third country.” With an estimated 59 percent of its population living in poverty, it is one of the world’s most unequal countries. Nearly half of children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition, the highest rate in Latin America. While Guatemala’s national homicide rate reportedly decreased in recent years, the vast majority of its murders

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