Washington — The Trump administration is weighing the possibility of sending Mexican asylum-seekers to Guatemala and asking them to seek protection in the Central American country, which has seen hundreds of thousands of its own citizens trek north in the past year to escape widespread poverty and violence.
As part of a controversial agreement with the Guatemalan government, the U.S. late last month started to send migrants from Honduras and El Salvador who sought asylum at the southern border to Guatemala. But with Mexican families continuing to head to the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months, the administration is now considering including Mexican migrants in the asylum deal with Guatemala and rerouting them there.
The possible move was first revealed on Thursday by Ken Cuccinelli, the immigration hardliner who is now the second-highest-ranking official at the Department of Homeland Security. A spokesperson for the department confirmed on Friday that the U.S. is considering the option.
"We are building protections that will be available to the region's vulnerable populations closer to home—eliminating the need to make the dangerous journey north and lining the pockets of transnational criminal organizations. As we fully implement the agreement, all populations are being considered, including Mexican nationals," Homeland Security spokesperson Heather Swift said in a statement.
Sending Mexican migrants to Guatemala would be an extraordinary move, as the administration has claimed that its asylum agreements with all three countries in Central America's Northern Triangle are designed to provide protection to vulnerable asylum-seekers closer to their homes. Mexican migrants do not travel through Guatemala to reach the U.S.-Mexico border.
"This is a clear attempt to try and discourage people from Mexico from applying for asylum in the United States," Andrew Seele, president of the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute, told CBS News. "There is no veneer of a good, normative reason. There is no veneer of something in this for the migrants themselves."
Including asylum-seekers from Honduras and El Salvador in the U.S.-Guatemala accord, Seele said, could potentially be justified through the administration's assertion that it wants migrants to request protection closer to their homes. Migrants from these countries travel through Guatemala to reach the U.S.-Mexico border.
But sending Mexican asylum-seekers to Guatemala, Seele added, is much more difficult to justify.
"This is sending someone over their country," he said. "This is sending someone further away to apply for asylum."
Asked about the rationale for sending asylum-seekers from Mexico to Guatemala, a Homeland Security spokesperson said the governments in Washington and Guatemala City are committed to offering "protection options" for all eligible migrants.
The Mexican embassy in Washington did not comment on the development, while the Guatemalan foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
For more than a year, most migrants who reached the U.S.-Mexico border were from Guatemala. Although it has experienced moderate economic growth since the end of a bloody civil war in the 1990s, Guatemala continues to grapple with high crime, political instability and widespread poverty, especially among its large indigenous communities in its Western highlands.
Although the U.S. has pledged to help improve it, the country's asylum system is fledgling. Only 262 migrants sought refuge in Guatemala last year, according to the United Nations.
The potential move by the Trump administration is likely designed to deter migrants from Mexico, who have journeyed to the southern border in steady numbers in recent months. The new trend has created a dilemma for U.S. officials, as Mexican migrants can't be placed in the "Remain in Mexico" program or be subject to a sweeping asylum restriction allowed by the Supreme Court.
Through experimental policies like the "Remain in Mexico" policy, which has required more than 55,000 asylum-seekers to wait in Mexican border cities for the duration of their U.S. immigration court proceedings, the administration has successfully stemmed the flow of migration from Central America, with overall apprehensions along the southern border decreasing dramatically in recent months.
"They brought down the apprehension numbers for Central Americans and other nationalities, but the Mexican numbers remain constant," Seele said. "And they're looking for a way to bring them down as well."
California Congresswoman Norma Torres, a native of Guatemala and the sole Central American in Congress, said the administration is rushing to expand its agreement with the outgoing government of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales before a new president takes office in January.
"I am appalled at Trump's cutthroat deal-making that jettisons American leadership and thrusts the challenges we face onto other, woefully unprepared, nations," Torres added in a statement.