The Trump administration signed an asylum agreement Friday with El Salvador, giving the U.S. the right to repatriate migrants who cross through El Salvador to reach the U.S. and who then request asylum here.
Officials hope the agreement, along with a similar one signed with Guatemala over the summer, will change the incentives that have spurred this year’s illegal immigration surge at the border.
Most asylum-seekers have bogus claims and won’t win their cases, but under the current system, many of them were allowed to remain in the U.S. while they argued their case — giving them a foothold here. Officials believe that if they can block those bogus asylum-seekers from reaching U.S. territory in the first place, it will reduce the overall flow.
Acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan signed the agreement in Washington with Alexandra Hill, El Salvador’s foreign minister.
“We are talking about giving them secure alternatives and increasing legal alternatives to safe migration,” Ms. Hill said.
The deal would apply to people from countries other than El Salvador who traverse the country en route to the U.S. to claim asylum. The U.S. says if they are truly asylum-seekers they should apply in the first safe country they come to, and should not be allowed to pick and choose their final destination.
“Individuals crossing El Salvador should be able to seek protection there,” Mr. McAleenan said.
Critics, anticipating the deal, had said El Salvador isn’t safe enough for asylum-seekers.
America’s Voice, an immigrant-rights advocacy group, said the State Department currently cautions Americans against traveling to El Salvador because of endemic violence, and the department’s human rights report cites El Salvador for extrajudicial killings and torture perpetrated by government security forces.
“The Trump administration’s asylum policies and sham processes are endangering lives and exacerbating a human rights crisis Trump and his team helped spark,” said Douglas Rivlin, spokesman for America’s Voice.
Mr. McAleenan, though, said the country is developing its asylum system and the U.S. is working to assist those efforts.
He also said the new agreement goes beyond the asylum question and recognizes steps the new Salvadoran government has already taken to cut illegal immigration. He said the number of Salvadorans caught trying to jump the U.S.-Mexico border has fallen more than 60% in recent months.
The U.S., as part of the deal, is committing to help expand guest worker opportunities for Salvadorans, and Ms. Hill said she’s also expecting more U.S. help in supporting Salvadorans deported back to her country.
Ms. Hill said her government is intent on trying to stop the flow of “irregular migration.”
She said one key motivation was the tragic deaths over the summer of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his daughter Valeria, both from El Salvador, who drowned in the Rio Grande after deciding they no longer wanted to wait to enter legally and instead attempted to swim the river.
Photos of the father and daughter dead on the bank of the river went viral, capturing the horrific dangers of illegal immigration.
For some Trump critics, the photo also became ammunition for arguing that his policies were cruel. They argued the family had become frustrated waiting in Mexico to claim asylum and felt they had no choice but to cross illegally.
Ramirez actually made it to the U.S. shore with his daughter, then went back into the river to help his wife cross. But his daughter followed him back into the water, and they both were swept away.
The wife later said they were coming to the U.S. for better economic opportunities — which is not usually a reason to be able to claim asylum.