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Honduras and US close to signing new immigration agreements

A delegation from the Honduran government is in Washington to negotiate three new migration agreements, including a so-called 'safe third country' deal specifically designed to prevent asylum seekers from Cuba reaching the United States.
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12 Sep 2019 – 07:20 AM EDT
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A migrant 'caravan' crossing Honduran border into Guatemala, October 2018. Crédito: John Moore/Getty Images

A Honduran delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Lisandro Rosales, is scheduled to meet with officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Thursday to negotiate three immigration agreements, according to Univision sources familiar with the discussions.

That includes a 'third safe country' agreement designed exclusively to curb the flow of Cuban and Nicaraguan migrants who pass through Honduras with the intention of applying for asylum in the United States, and which would require them to apply for asylum in Honduras, according to the sources.

Another agreement would strengthen Honduras' borders with training and assistance from US Customs and Border Protection (CPB) agents, while the third involves the creation of a system for sharing biometric data, such as finger prints.

The three agreements which have already been drawn up could be signed on Thursday, despite some misgivings on the part of Honduran foreign ministry officials who feel their government is bowing to pressure from Washington, according to the sources.

The negotiations take place hours after the United States Supreme Court allowed the application of a new Trump administration rule that prevents most Central American immigrants from seeking asylum in the United States.

The policy is intended to deny asylum to anyone who passes through another country on the way to the United States without seeking protection there, and the change reverses decades of American policies.

The deputy Foreign Minister of International Affairs of Honduras, José Isaías Barahona, confirmed Wednesday that his country is negotiating the new immigration agreements, but declined to go into details about the types of measures under discussion.

"There are negotiations"

"Honduras and the United States have not yet reached an agreement," Barahona explained. "We must not talk about whether or not there are proposals, what I can assure is that there are negotiations," he told HRN radio in Honduras on Wednesday.

"We are on the transit route of other citizens of the world, who also intend to reach the United States, so of course we have to work together and there are approaches ... so that people are protected and can, in some cases, reach their destination, or in other cases be returned to their countries in a proper and safe way with dignity respecting their rights," he added.

Minister Rosales on Monday denied press reports indicating that his government had discussed a controversial 'safe third country' agreement that would require non-Honduran citizens crossing their territory on their way to the United States to submit asylum applications in Honduras, effectively blocking their efforts to reach US territory.

U.S. and Honduran officials prefer to use the official term 'Asylum Cooperation Agreement' to describe these controversial measures which have been widely criticized by immigration advocacy groups.

Is it a safe country?

The Honduran newspaper La Prensa published an article on Sunday citing diplomatic sources stating that the two countries reached an agreement at a meeting on August 26 in Washington between the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, and the interim secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Kevin McAleenan.

The discussion of the agreement, which was later confirmed by Univision News, follows similar pacts, known as Asylum Cooperation Agreements, with Guatemala and Mexico. They are known as 'third safe country' agreements in reference to the way they require migrants to apply for asylum in a country designated as "safe" through which they pass before they reach the southern border of the United States.

Critics of this type of agreement point out that countries like Honduras and Guatemala are far from safe, plagued by gangs and have some of the highest crime rates in the world. Honduras also has no financial or logistical capacity to properly process and shelter the migrants, they say.

"It is really unthinkable that they take one of the least safe countries in the world, Honduras, and declare it a safe country for asylum seekers," said Adam Isacson, a Latin America expert at the Washington Office for Latin America (WOLA). "This measure is also aimed primarily at people fleeing from Cuba and Nicaragua, which the Trump administration has already called tyrannies,' which implies that people are expelled for political persecution," he added.

Critics also point out that the United States is taking advantage of the fact that the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, has found himself in a very weak bargaining position after the Justice Department recently named him in a major case of drug trafficking and money laundering in New York involving one of his brothers. The case goes to trial in October.

DHS did not reply to a Univision message for comment on Wednesday. "The United States continues to have productive discussions with the Government of Honduras on a range of bilateral security topics, including migration. We have no announcements to make at this time," a spokesman said Tuesday.

McAleenan tweeted late Wednesday that DHS was planning to meet the Honduran delegation for discussions "on a range of security topics, including migration."


The Trump administration has focused heavily on finding ways to reduce the flow of migrants on its southern border over the past two years, partly through closer collaboration with the governments of the region to create a safe and orderly migration. President Trump made his main election campaign promise in 2016 to reduce immigration by building a wall on the border with Mexico, suggesting that the country was being "invaded" by undocumented immigrants.

But, in recent months there has been an increase in immigrants seeking to enter the United States from other countries, besides Mexico and the nations of the so-called Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador).

According to data from CBP, there were 390,308 apprehensions of family units on the Mexican border in June this year. Of these, 366,530 correspond to Mexicans and Central Americans and 23,778 correspond to immigrants from Asia, the Caribbean and South America. In July, a total of 432,838 families were arrested on the Mexican border. Of these, 403,195 correspond to Mexicans and Central Americans, and 29,643 correspond to immigrants from Asia, the Caribbean and South America.

So far this year, 30,000 people from Africa, South America, Cuba and Haiti have entered Honduras, and the number could reach 70,000 by the end of the year, according to the Honduran government. “For us this is a delicate and difficult matter to handle, that's why we came to make the approach that we have to work together, with shared responsibility," President Hernandez said after the meeting in Washington on August 26.

According to the newspaper La Prensa, 57% of the migrants were from Cuba, citing official sources. "We can only imagine the enormous weight, the enormous social problem of this enormous number of people if they are stranded or accumulate in Honduras and we, as a country, are unable to serve them," added Hernandez.

As part of the new agreements, the United States will provide funds to implement the plan, including sending federal agents to Honduras, according to the sources. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, would, in theory, be responsible for their processing, shelter and relocation.