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GUATEMALA CITY -- Five days after signing a major new asylum agreement with the Guatemalan government, the acting U.S. homeland security secretary, Kevin McAleenan, arrived there this week to sell it to a skeptical public.

Under the broad outlines of the accord, President Donald Trump's administration plans to bounce a large number of asylum seekers from Honduras and El Salvador back to Guatemala instead of processing their claims in overwhelmed U.S. immigration courts. Guatemala's deeply unpopular government acquiesced to the pact last month after Trump said he would institute tariffs, fees and travel restrictions that could have sent the Central American country into ruin.

McAleenan arrived with a sunnier message, telling reporters, business leaders and prominent Guatemalans that the deal will transform the country's relationship with the United States, bringing more work visas, investment and tens of millions of dollars in U.S. financial aid.

He also tried to assuage fears the United States will foist thousands of foreign returnees on a country with little ability to process them, care for them or provide them protection. McAleenan told them the agreement, if approved, would start slowly.

McAleenan said the program would start with the "least vulnerable" groups, meaning single adults, not children. And those who claim fear would still be eligible for withholding of removal, a lesser form of protection than full asylum.

"We're working on the details," he said in an interview, "and ensuring that the Guatemalans understand that we're talking about a phased and measured approach to implementation that will not overwhelm Guatemalan resources, and will be supported by U.S.-funded international organization capacity."

The trip highlighted the efforts the Trump administration is taking to curtail a record-breaking surge of Central American migrant families and children into the United States. Since Oct. 1, U.S. agents have taken more than 850,000 border-crossers into custody, the biggest migration wave in more than a decade.

Many of the migrants express a fear of return to their home countries, often the first step toward filing an asylum claim that prevents a prolonged detention or swift deportation out of the United States. Trump, McAleenan and other U.S. officials say the majority of those seeking asylum aren't really in any danger in their homelands and instead are economic migrants who are trying to take advantage of U.S. humanitarian programs to gain easy entry to the country as they seek work and better pay.

The Trump administration is prepared to spend $40 million to build up Guatemala's ability to create an asylum system -- case workers, shelters and so forth -- for those who truly need protection, U.S. officials said this week. It was the first time they have placed a dollar amount on the financial component of the deal.

McAleenan said he wants regional asylum policies to align, allowing "people to be protected" while also expanding capacity for asylum in other countries, "as close to their home as possible." He said he also want to "address the situation where migrants are moving in the hands of smugglers across multiple borders to try to get to a destination country."

Guatemalan asylum seekers who reach the U.S. border would be exempt from the policy, because international treaties and U.S. laws protect those seeking safe refuge from being deported back to the countries from which they have fled persecution.

In that regard, the program could work in practice like a backdoor deportation mechanism for Hondurans and Salvadorans and an alternative to releasing them into the interior of the United States. The Trump administration would continue to send Guatemalan asylum seekers who cross the border without authorization back to Mexico to await processing there under the program the administration calls the "Migration Protection Protocols," adding to a growing patchwork of novel bureaucratic and legal barriers.

Mexico agreed in its June 7 accord with Trump to allow the Migration Protection Protocols program to expand and vowed to work on a regional asylum overhaul plan, but President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has insisted he does not want his nation to enter into a "Safe Third Country" accord that would force Mexico to accept all U.S.-bound asylum seekers.

The United States has sought the deal with Guatemala in part to assure Mexico that no single country would carry the burden alone.

But several major obstacles to the asylum deal remain, and its prospects for implementation have been hampered by the perception that Trump imposed the deal on outgoing president Jimmy Morales.

Guatemala's highest court ruled last month that the nation's congress must approve any such accord for it to take effect, and a vote has yet to be scheduled.

A Section on 08/02/2019

Print Headline: U.S. tackles doubts about asylum deal

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