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The US is putting asylum seekers on planes to Guatemala — often without telling them where they’re going

People seeking asylum in the United States waited at the border in Tijuana, Mexico. The number of people arrested or stopped entering the US along the Mexico border fell for a seventh straight month in December, with Mexicans making up a larger than usual part of the mix, authorities said.AP Photo/Elliot Spagat/Associated Press

GUATEMALA CITY — The chartered US government flights land here every day or two, depositing Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers from the US border. Many arrive with the same question: ‘‘Where are we?’’

For the first time ever, the United States is shipping asylum seekers who arrive at its border to a so-called safe third country to seek refuge there. The Trump administration hopes the program will serve as a model for others in the region.

But during its first weeks, asylum seekers and human rights advocates say, migrants have been put on planes without being told where they were headed.


When the migrants land in Guatemala City, they’re given little information about what it means to apply for asylum in one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries. Those who don’t immediately apply are told to leave the country in 72 hours. The form is labeled ‘‘Voluntary Return.’’

‘‘In the US, the agents told us our cases would be transferred, but they didn’t say where. Then they lined us up to get on the plane,’’ said Marta, 43, from Honduras. She sat in a migrant shelter here with her 17-year-old son .

Human rights organizations in Guatemala say they have recorded dozens of cases of asylum seekers who were misled by US officials into boarding flights, and who were not informed of their asylum rights upon arrival. Of the 143 Hondurans and Salvadorans sent to Guatemala since the program began last month, only five have applied for asylum, according to the country’s migration agency.

Safe Third Country is one of the Trump administration’s most dramatic initiatives to curb migration — an effort to remake the US asylum system. Trump has called it ‘‘terrific for [Guatemala] and terrific for us.’’

But the Asylum Cooperation Agreement is bringing migrants to a country unable to provide economic and physical security for its own citizens — many of whom are themselves trying to migrate.


As the deal was negotiated, it drew concerns from the United Nations and human rights organizations. But its implementation, advocates say, has been worse than they feared.

‘‘It’s a total disaster,’’ said Thelma Shau, who has observed the arrival of asylum seekers at La Aurora International Airport in her role overseeing migration issues for Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman.

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.