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Guatemala Signed Trump's Deal To Limit Asylum-Seekers. Can The Country Fulfill It?


President Trump spent much of the week threatening leaders of Guatemala. And yesterday, he got what he wanted. Guatemala agreed to hold asylum-seekers from other countries in Guatemala rather than let them go on to Mexico and the U.S. NPR's Carrie Kahn was recently in Guatemala reporting on the plan. She joins us now from Mexico City. Carrie, thanks so much for being with us.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Sure. Of course.

SIMON: What's in this deal?

KAHN: Well, beginning as soon as possibly next month, Guatemala's agreed to take in asylum-seekers from Honduras and El Salvador. For those Central Americans, Guatemala would be the first country that they transit on their way to the U.S., and they would have to ask for asylum there. If they got to the U.S. border and they had not requested asylum in Guatemala, U.S. officials could return them to Guatemala. Many call this a safe third country agreement, although that wording wasn't in the agreement signed yesterday.

So we're talking about tens of thousands of potential asylum-seekers remaining in Guatemala. And U.S. officials say this is the best way for them to be safe, requesting protection in the first country they step into, rather than risking their lives in the hands of expensive smugglers taking them all the way to the U.S. For Guatemala, looks like they've secured a deal where citizens can come legally to work in U.S. farms under an expanded guest worker program that authorities say could start as soon as next week. But the agreement is expected to face legal challenges in the U.S. and especially in Guatemala, where its high court had banned the president from signing such a deal.

SIMON: Why is it an unpopular proposition in Guatemala?

KAHN: Well, earlier this month, Guatemala's highest court had blocked the President Jimmy Morales from signing any international migration treaties. They wanted - they said that he had to have approval from Congress. Opponents of the president who say that he's increasingly using executive powers to - unlawfully - brought the case to the high court there. And I talked to some of them about the deal, and they said it's unclear even if the interior minister, who signed the agreement in the Oval Office yesterday, had the authority to do that and whether the high court's ban had been violated.

And civil rights groups in the U.S. are preparing seats, too, and they just say it's ridiculous to expect Guatemala to accept so many asylum-seekers, with its high murder rate, it's gang violence and its extreme poverty. And especially, Scott, when Guatemalans themselves are fleeing the country in record numbers.

SIMON: Did President Trump's threat to the Guatemalan leadership and government make this deal possible?

KAHN: It looks like it did. You know, Guatemala is very dependent on the U.S. It's its No. 1 trading partner. And Trump had threatened to slap tariffs on Guatemalan goods. He also threatened to tax remittances. And that's the money that Guatemalans working in the U.S. send back home. We're talking about more than $9 billion last year, and that would have been a big hit to poor Guatemalans dependent on that cash flow. And Trump had threatened to ban Guatemalans from traveling to the U.S. And I talked with business leaders there who are just telling their president, President Morales, just sign the deal. You know, its consequences can't be worse than any of these other sanctions.

SIMON: Can Guatemala live up to this deal?

KAHN: I just think no. If tens of thousands of Central Americans had to resettle in Guatemala, there's no way this poor country could assimilate and care for them without substantial assistance from the U.S. And I actually went to Guatemala's tiny asylum office when I was there earlier this month. The woman who runs this office - and there's only eight employees there - she was just quite blunt. I asked her right out, could you handle a rush of new applicants? And she said no.

And they already have a backlog of more than 400 asylum-seekers. More than half of those applicants are from last year, which cases still haven't been resolved. But yesterday, President Trump was very pleased with the agreement. All weekend, he'd been berating the Guatemalan president. But yesterday, Trump said Morales is now a friend of the U.S. instead of being an enemy.

SIMON: NPR's Carrie Kahn. Thanks so much for being with us.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.