By Molly O’Toole
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON —The U.S. signed an asylum agreement Friday with El Salvador, one of the world’s most violent countries. American and Salvadoran officials described the deal as shoring up El Salvador’s own asylum system and its capacity to provide for its citizens, in turn discouraging them from migrating.
While the specifics of the agreement remain unknown, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said in a news conference Friday “one potential use” is to limit asylum-seekers passing through El Salvador from claiming asylum in the United States. He offered no timeline.
But with most asylum-seekers traveling north to the U.S. border going around El Salvador — seeking to avoid the small country where gang violence, poverty and corruption are pervasive — any asylum deal could have a limited impact on reducing overall migration to the United States.
In the last five years, El Salvador’s homicide rate has ranked among the highest in the world, though it has recently trended down. U.S. officials and experts, as well as newly elected Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, have credited the reduction in violence in El Salvador for contributing to a drop in the numbers of Salvadoran migrants stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border or claiming asylum in the U.S. In recent years, more migrants have come from Honduras and Guatemala, El Salvador’s Northern Triangle neighbors.
As of August, U.S. border officials this year have apprehended 86,312 Salvadorans at the U.S. southern border, compared with 258,635 Guatemalans and 244,928 Hondurans.
McAleenan praised Bukele’s administration Friday, saying the number of Salvadoran migrants reaching the U.S. southern border has dropped more than 62% since Bukele took office in June.
“Bukele has stated he intends to end forced migration his term,” McAleenan said. “El Salvador has stepped forward and made good on those efforts.”
Salvadoran official Alexandra Hill Tinoco, who signed the agreement sitting next to McAleenan and behind flags of El Salvador and the U.S., stressed that El Salvador is responsible for outward migration. An official statement from the Salvadoran government remained vague on what the deal would do.
“El Salvador has not been able to give our people enough security or opportunity so they can stay and thrive in El Salvador,” Hill Tinoco said.
Later, seeming to indirectly address the heated rhetoric that President Donald Trump has used toward migrants, she added, “sometimes we lose the concept that there are human beings behind this.”
The agreement is the latest in a long-running effort by the Trump administration to restrict migrants’ access to asylum in the United States and force Central Americans in particular to seek refuge elsewhere.
The deal is likely to be modeled on others either signed or sought with Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and other countries in Central or South America that serve as the primary countries of origin or transit for migrants from around the world seeking asylum in the U.S.
Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the world’s largest humanitarian organizations, with a huge presence in Venezuela, Colombia and Central America, said Thursday ahead of a trip to El Salvador and Honduras that the Trump administration’s approach “defies logic.” The council is planning on setting up a series of shelters along the primary migration routes north to the U.S.
“If the United States declares safe havens in (Central American) countries, it will be the end of the ancient symbol of civilization: the rule of asylum,” Egeland said, emphasizing that Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are not safe. “This will encourage a new wave of boat refugees. People who take a boat to get to California or Texas. Imagine it.”
Bukele, a millennial millionaire elected as an outsider to the two main political parties that have dominated El Salvador in the decades since its civil war ended, largely has been reluctant to criticize Trump.
In recent months, Bukele has said El Salvador should do more to create economic opportunities and keep Salvadorans from leaving, and indicated he would be open to working with Washington on migration. El Salvador’s economy relies heavily on remittances from the United States, where more than 2.3 million Salvadorans live — many in Los Angeles.
“We can send all the blame to any government we like,” Bukele said in July. “We can say President Trump’s policies are wrong. We can say Mexico’s policies are wrong. But what about our blame?”
In late July, McAleenan and a Guatemalan counterpart signed a similar agreement in the Oval Office, with Trump looking on. That agreement has yet to be formally authorized by Guatemala or implemented by the U.S. Guatemala’s highest court previously ruled that the country’s president could not sign such an agreement.
Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, criticized the agreements Friday, calling them “cynical and absurd.”
“Where will they declare a haven for asylum-seekers next? Syria? North Korea?” Schwartz said. “El Salvador is in no way safe for asylum-seekers. Neither is Guatemala nor Honduras.”
Despite threats from Trump, Mexican officials have been adamant that they will not enter into a “safe third country”-type agreement with the U.S., which would require that any migrant that passes through Mexico without claiming asylum there first be rendered ineligible to seek asylum in the United States.
Mexican officials argue it is unnecessary. They say they have stepped-up enforcement, including the deployment of National Guard units to stop migrants at its southern border with Guatemala and its northern border with the U.S. In addition, Mexico has cooperated with the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which has forced more than 40,000 asylum-seekers to wait in dangerous Mexican border cities as their cases proceed in the U.S.
Such asylum agreements with individual countries may not matter due to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week allowing the Trump administration to move forward on implementing a policy that would effectively end asylum at the U.S. southern border. While not a final ruling, Trump officials can now bar almost any migrant who does not seek asylum in another country first before seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The president trumpeted the ruling shortly after, tweeting, “BIG United States Supreme Court WIN for the Border on Asylum!”
Egeland, of the Norwegian Refugee Council, argued that Trump’s policies would not stop outward migration from Central America, but fuel it.
“The one nation on Earth who should be invested in this is the United States. … This is your neighborhood,” Egeland said. “If hope leaves the region, the young people will run after it.”