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Guatemala suspends deportation flights, pausing Trump asylum deal over coronavirus

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A bilateral agreement that allowed the Trump administration to send non-Guatemalan asylum-seekers to Guatemala was temporarily suspended on Tuesday as the government in Guatemala moved to block deportation flights from the U.S. in response to escalating coronavirus pandemic.

One day after announcing a nationwide shutdown in response to worldwide health crisis, Guatemala's conservative government announced it would not be receiving asylum-seekers deported under the so-called "Asylum Cooperative Agreement." The country's foreign ministry also said U.S. flights of Guatemalan deportees that were scheduled on Tuesday were canceled.

The foreign ministry said the precautionary move would remain in place while "adequate" sanitary protocols were established, but it did not provide a timeframe. U.S. immigration officials, the foreign ministry added, are taking measures to ensure migrants with symptoms related to the coronavirus are not sent to Guatemala. 

Guatemala Virus Outbreak
An immigration worker carries a young Guatemalan who was deported from the U.S. at La Aurora International airport in Guatemala City on Thursday, March 12, 2020. Moises Castillo / AP

Tuesday's announcement is a setback for the Trump administration's efforts to restrict access to America's asylum system for migrants at the southern border. Under the deal with Guatemala, one of three agreements the administration forged with all countries in Central America's Northern Triangle, the U.S. has sent more than 930 Honduran and Salvadoran asylum-seekers, including 357 children, to Guatemala.

Migrants subjected to the agreement, which is being challenged in court, are denied the opportunity to apply for any U.S. humanitarian protection at the U.S.-Mexico border. Once in Guatemala, they must choose between two options: try to seek refugee status through the skeletal Guatemalan asylum regime or return to their native countries. The vast majority have chosen the latter option, and Guatemala's asylum system is currently processing only 20 requests for protection.

The Guatemalan government had come under pressure in recent days to stop the agreement while the world responds to the coronavirus outbreak. Over the weekend, citing concerns about the pandemic, the main migrant shelter in Guatemala's capital said it would temporarily stop receiving deportees from the U.S., including Honduran and Salvadoran asylum-seekers sent there under the deal. 

Department of Homeland Security officials in charge of deporting migrants subjected to the deal did not respond to requests for comment.

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