By Lorne Matalon
Guatemala has sealed its borders and banned the arrival of commercial flights, including those from the United States, in an attempt to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Cargo is exempted, but commercial flights are banned for the time being. However there is one exception in Guatemala’s aviation profile and it has to do with immigration enforcement.
Deportations from the U.S. continue. Flights carrying one subset of the migration mosaic, asylum seekers from Honduras and El Salvador, were also taking off until recently to Guatemala, with the planes departing from Texas. In March, those particular deportation flights were temporarily suspended. However many detainees have already landed in Guatemala and claim they were misled about where they were going in the first place.
They were sent to Guatemala under the terms of a Trump administration policy that is under challenge in U.S. federal court. Opponents claim U.S. law and international treaty obligations are being violated by sending people to countries where they will face danger.
Blanca Díaz is a 26-year-old from Usulután, El Salvador where she operated a one person unisex hair salon from home. She methodically recounted a string of what she said had been extortion threats from pandilleros, criminals who are soldiers for organized crime in Central America’s Northern Triangle, a security-challenged region comprising El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
She said she opted to leave El Salvador after one threat too many. She described the difficult choice she said she had to make; to stay in an insecure situation or leave all that she loves to find safety elsewhere. Díaz said she paid 12 thousand dollars to a coyote, a human smuggler, to bring her from El Salvador to the U.S. border.
She had crossed the Rio Grande where Reynosa, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas meets McAllen, Texas. She was arrested in McAllen and placed into the migrant detention center there. Days later, she said she and other Salvadorans and Hondurans were placed onto a bus in handcuffs. It was late at night. She said the bus stopped to pick up other asylum seekers at another migrant detention center in Donna, Texas. Several hours later, she arrived at an airport.
“Once I saw the airport in Texas, I knew something wasn’t right,” she said in Spanish. She explained that she wasn’t sure where she was. She said the bus passed signs indicating the airport was somewhere either in or near San Antonio. She recounted that she became nervous when she saw a lone jet waiting to meet the bus at an otherwise inactive, and in her description, non-civilian airport.
“They told me I was going to another place to continue my application for asylum. I wasn’t sure where that was but I thought it was inside the U.S.” she said.
I heard similar stories from multiple people unsure of where they were going when they departed Texas or what it meant for their U.S. asylum cases. A Dept of Homeland Security spokesperson asserted in an emailed statement for this story that asylum seekers are told on multiple occasions during the deportation process that they are being sent to Guatemala.
Eduardo Woltke defends migrant rights in the Office of Guatemala’s Attorney General and he is unclear on what the new arrivals were actually told.
“The people sent here need clear information,” Woltke said in Spanish. “I don’t know what happened in Texas. But many people say they signed papers that they thought would send them to their home countries. Then they found themselves here.”
They found themselves in a country that many are trying to leave. In 2019, Guatemala was the largest source of migrants detained at the U.S. border, more than 264,000.
“More than 800 people have been sent here so far but just 25 have applied for asylum,” Woltke continued.
“We have interviewed many people who say asylum in Guatemala is not an option. I think most of them will try to return to the U.S.,” he said. There are fewer than a dozen asylum officers in Guatemala. It takes years to get a decision. Very few applicants are accepted.
“When they arrive in Guatemala, they’re afraid. They start crying,” said Manuel Aguirre, who manages a migrant shelter in Guatemala City’s Zone 1. He said most asylum seekers he deals with are crushed but undeterred.
“They tell me that they would prefer to die trying again to go to the United States than to go back to their own countries,” Aguirre explained.
The union representing U.S. asylum and refugee officers has filed a brief in federal court stating the policy is sending vulnerable people to a country in which “their lives and freedom are directly threatened.” As for Blanca Díaz, she knew exactly what her next step would be.
“I’m going back to the U.S. again. At least I’m going to try because I am not staying here in Guatemala and for sure, I’m not going back to El Salvador.” International law does not allow the U.S. to deport asylum seekers directly back to their home countries. For most people targeted by the policy, Guatemala is a trampoline, a brief stop before another attempt to return to the U.S. in hopes of gaining a formal asylum interview.
Guatemala’s government affords people such as Díaz 72 hours, three days, to apply for asylum but only for asylum in Guatemala. After that, if they do not apply, they are supposed to be deported to their home countries. That doesn’t appear to be happening on a large scale.
The U.S. asylum process is also not a legal option for the next five years. Before getting on the plane in Texas, the Salvadorans and Hondurans signed papers which state they cannot legally attempt to return to the U.S. for five years.