Trump Considers Punishing Guatemala for Balking on ‘Safe Third Country’ Deal

July 23, 2019 Updated: July 23, 2019

President Donald Trump is considering options to punish Guatemala for walking away from a “safe third country” agreement, including a travel ban, tariffs, and a hike in remittance fees.

“Guatemala, which has been forming Caravans and sending large numbers of people, some with criminal records, to the United States, has decided to break the deal they had with us on signing a necessary Safe Third Agreement,” Trump wrote on Twitter on July 23. “We were ready to go. Now we are looking at the ‘BAN,’ Tariffs, Remittance Fees, or all of the above. Guatemala has not been good. Big U.S. taxpayer dollars going to them was cut off by me 9 months ago.

Guatemala President Jimmy Morales canceled a trip to Washington on July 14 that would have included negotiations for a safe third country. The agreement would require migrants from El Salvador and Honduras to seek asylum in Guatemala and allow the United States to deport migrants from those countries to Guatemala as they await a resolution of their asylum claims.

The day before Trump’s announcement, the Department of Homeland Security released a joint statement with Guatemala that highlighted several areas of cooperation between the two countries, but notably omitted any mention of the safe third country deal.

Prior to the Twitter message about Guatemala, Trump hadn’t publicly mentioned remittances since he was elected. Remittances are payments sent overseas by workers in the United States. Remittance payments from the United States are a top source of revenue for both Guatemala and Mexico.

On the campaign trail, Trump pitched a plan (pdf) to pressure Mexico to pay for a wall on the southwest border by threatening to enact a rule that would prohibit illegal aliens in the United States from sending money internationally.

Guatemala received $9.5 billion in remittances in 2018. Honduras and El Salvador received $4.7 billion and $5.4 billion, respectively.

The president has already used the threat of tariffs to force Mexico to step up its immigration enforcement efforts. The United States is one of Guatemala’s largest trading partners, according to the Department of State.

The president’s reference to a “ban” is least clear of the three options he listed, but likely refers to a travel restriction on Guatemalan citizens. Trump has previously banned travel from several nations with high concentrations of terrorists. The Supreme Court upheld a version of the order in June last year.

The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The United States has been attempting to negotiate a safe third country deal with several Central American nations. Mexico has agreed to consider signing a safe third country deal if it fails to reduce migration flows to the United States.

The State Department is following through on an order from Trump and cutting $550 million in aid to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, also known as the Northern Triangle.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview on July 22 that the United States has broadened its economic engagement with the Northern Triangle, noting that in addition to direct migration from the three countries, many of the migrants who arrive on the U.S. border transit through the area.

“Many of the folks that we apprehend today at our southern border are not only from those three countries but are transiting through those three countries. They have an obligation,” Pompeo told conservative radio host Buck Sexton.

“It’s interesting—I saw some statistics on how many Guatemalans have left, how deep the level of migration is. This isn’t good for Guatemala to have their citizens leaving either. They need their people to want to stay in the country, and their leaders need to create rule of law and systems that will convince them that that’s the right thing to do.”

Follow Ivan on Twitter: @ivanpentchoukov
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