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Guatemala signs asylum deal with the U.S.

President Donald Trump, who has pushed hard to slow the flow of illegal migrants who are bypassing established asylum laws established by the UN, said Friday that the “safe third country asylum” agreement would require would-be asylum seekers traveling through Guatemala to seek refuge there, not in the United States. Anyone failing to do so would be sent back to Guatemala.

Most of those migrants would be coming from El Salvador or Honduras.

The pact was signed in Washington on Friday by Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of homeland security, and Guatemala’s interior secretary, Enrique Degenhart.  It aims to require Central American countries to follow long-established asylum rules agreed to by the international community. Those rules require asylum seekers to stay in the country immediately next to the country they are leaving.

Guatemalan human rights ombudsman Jordan Rodas has questioned its legality, saying his country’s constitution does not authorize a minister to sign such an agreement. He urged Congress to study it carefully.

Rights group Amnesty International called the agreement “outrageous,” saying that “there is no doubt that Guatemala should not be considered a safe place of refuge.”  The organization has previously supported the UN guidelines until now.

A “safe third” agreement could be legal only if would-be asylum seekers were sent to a truly safe third country, rights groups said.

“The Trump administration must abandon this cruel and illegal plan,” Amnesty’s director for the Americas, Charanya Krishnaswami, said in a statement.

Refugees International called the pact “very alarming.”

Business groups, however, applauded the deal for sparing Guatemalans potentially severe economic penalties threatened by Trump. Their sentiments were echoed by some groups who argue stopping the flow north would save lives, reduce the flow of child sex trafficking and force Central American countries to deal with their  internal issues.

“The risks and consequences of not signing were very great,” said Juan Carlos Tefel, president of the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Associations.

The Guatemalan-American Chamber of Commerce also registered its approval.

The agreement was originally to have been signed July 15 by Trump and Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, but when Guatemala’s Constitutional Court temporarily blocked the pact, the signing was delayed.

The deal was finalized after Trump threatened to impose tough economic measures on Guatemala, including steep tariffs on imports.

The U.S. is Guatemala’s top trading partner. Remittances last year from Guatemalans in the U.S. amounted to 12 percent of the Central American country’s gross domestic product.

–VOA News Service