On September 30, 2020 the U.S Department of State sent a memo outlining to Congress the proposed cap on the admittance of asylum seekers at 15,000 for the 2021 fiscal  year. This is the latest action in a series of significant cuts to US asylum programs instigated under the current Trump administration. For reference, admitted refugee quotas during the last year of the Obama administration was 110,000. 

This proposal has sparked outrage amongst lawmakers and human rights advocates alike, who made clear the multitude of adverse effects this would have on the lives of millions of people fleeing persecution and economic crises in their home countries.  

The Trump administration has provided several justifications for this drastic revision, including  the unsubstantiated claim that it is a public health protocol designed to combat the spread of  COVID-19. However, US legislation trends and the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has been  integral to the administration’s foreign policy suggests that such developments are not only a response to COVID-19, but are instead designed as yet another systematic blockade against migrants – specifically those who come from South and Central America. 

Top officials within the administration assert that the most adequate approach to supporting these refugees is the facilitation of a program in which they seek “temporary housing outside of the United States… as close to their homes as possible, until they can safely and voluntarily return to rebuild their lives, their communities, and their countries”. 

This proposed approach alludes to the recent Asylum Cooperative Agreements (ACA) that the US has signed with several Central American countries; these agreements have proven to be particularly problematic in their lack of formal human rights protocols and international oversight.  

The Mechanics of Asylum Cooperative Agreements  

The contemporary origins of the ACA started in July of 2019, with the US  and three Central American countries (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) signing deals that  circumvent the possibility of individuals applying for asylum in the US. Instead of having their cases submitted through the US system, asylum seekers are flown to one of these three  “Northern Triangle” Central American countries, where they are then permitted to request asylum. 

Such protocols illustrate how heavily the US  asylum system under the Trump administration relies on “Safe Third Country Agreements” – deals typically made between two countries that aim to reduce pressures on  asylum systems. In theory, these deals mandate that each country within the agreement will meet the humanitarian and legal standards for providing asylum, and therefore assume that asylum seekers will be safe to submit requests in whichever participating country they pass through first. 

The ACA and Safe Third Country Agreements between the US and Latin America have clearly been shown to not adhere to these formal guidelines or pre-requisites, which has led to a multitude of severe implications for asylum seekers, governments, and local communities.  

“Remain in Mexico” Policies  

The ACA and other recent restrictions on asylum seekers are not the first attempt by the  current U.S administration to significantly curb immigration from their Southern neighbors. In January of 2019, the US Department of Homeland Security instigated the “Migrant Protection  Protocols” (MPP), colloquially known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy. 

Under these protocols, asylum seekers arriving at the US-Mexico port of entry are required to return to Mexico, and subsequently remain there for the duration of their legal proceedings. Along with the considerable human rights and administrative issues that these protocols present, they also have questionable standing within both domestic and international law. 

The processes of the MPP have been widely denounced due to their violation of the concept of non-refoulement: a crucial pillar of international law that guarantees refugees will not be returned to countries where they could face significant harm or persecution. Asymmetric policies and agreements such as the ACA and the MPP have undermined efforts to institutionally protect refugees and asylum seekers, leaving them entirely vulnerable to a variety of threats to their health, safety, and  prosperity.  

Asymmetric and Dangerous Agreements  

From an international code of conduct perspective, the policies in question are incredibly  problematic as their implementation relies on the US’s ability to strongarm Central American governments into signing agreements they do not have the  infrastructure to support. Both the MPP and the ACA were entered into on significantly asymmetric premises, as the governments of the countries involved did not agree to participate willfully, yet were forced to concede to the political pressures and economic threats of the globally hegemonic United States. 

Lawmakers in Mexico and Guatemala respectively expressed concern about how such policies would affect asylum seekers and strain the legal systems created to protect them. In response, the Trump administration asserted that should these countries not agree to abide by the guidelines set out by the US, severe tariffs and increased restrictions on immigration would be the likely retaliation.

Each country in question has since entered into some form of proposed agreement with the US as they were unable to utilize legal autonomy within their own constitutional courts.  

Since the programs came into effect, empirical evidence has shown that the Central American representatives had every reason to be apprehensive of entering into such agreements – as government systems and local communities are continuing to struggle with the significant influx of asylum seekers, exacerbated by a lack of funds and relevant infrastructure

For instance, the Mexican government has been utilizing their official asylum procedures in order to accommodate the MPP and a resulting increase in asylum claims.  However, this legal framework alone does not have the capacity to address the humanitarian issues at hand. 

Problems such as a lack of adequate health services, legal representation, and exposure to severely dangerous conditions, have not only presented in Mexico, but also in each of the other participating Central American countries. The Human Rights Watch reports that in the case of Guatemala, refugees are given an inadequate amount of time to make a decision on their claims (e.g. 72 hours to decide whether to pursue a claim and stay in Guatemala, pursue a claim in another country, or return to their home countries). 

These extreme pressures, along with inhumane detention conditions and the fear that Central American countries within the ACA may be just as dangerous as the countries they fled, have led to a significant number of asylum seekers abandoning their claims completely.  

How Can We Help?  

Those who have left everything they have ever known in search of a safer, more prosperous life should never have to face a reality whereby bureaucratic  obstacles and further safety concerns cause them to abandon their asylum claims. 

Members of  the global community have the power to critique these issues and demand changes to policies such as the ACA and the MPP due to the unjust risk and strain they impose on asylum seekers and their Central American host countries. 

The support of grassroots community engagement has also proven to be key through efforts such as: campaigns advocating for improved sanitary conditions within refugee camps and detention facilities, as well as the push to ensure that the processing of refugees and asylum seekers strictly adheres to international human rights laws. 

The unprecedented uncertainty that we have all experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic gives a glimpse into the magnitude of the uncertainty faced by thousands of refugees and asylum seekers on a daily basis; therefore, it is vital now more than ever for the rights of these groups to be protected and upheld by any and all means necessary. 

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Katie Howe

Katie is originally from the small town of Los Gatos, California and is currently in her final year of the International Relations (B.A.) program at the University of British Columbia. Her areas of interest...

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