GUATEMALA CITY—In March, Guatemala closed its borders and airports to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus. But there was one special set of flights still allowed in – and it was for immigration enforcement. Asylum seekers from Honduras and El Salvador were being deported to Guatemala, with the planes lifting off from Texas. A few days ago, Guatemala temporarily suspended acceptance of these flights. But many detainees have already landed there and claim they were misled about where they were going in the first place.
The fights were conducted under a Trump administration policy that is under challenge in U.S. federal court. Opponents claim U.S. law and international treaty obligations are being violated by sending people to countries where they face certain danger.
Blanca Díaz is a 26-year-old from Usulután, El Salvador where she operated a one-person unisex hair salon from home. She says she received extortion threats from pandilleros, criminals who are soldiers for organized crime. Pandilleros are akin to parallel states in Central America’s Northern Triangle – a security-challenged region comprising El Savador, Guatemala and Honduras.
After detailing a string of extortion threats and payments, she says she opted to leave El Salvador. She related the difficult choice she says she had to make; stay in an insecure situation or leave all that she loves to find safety elsewhere. Díaz says she paid $12,000 to a coyote, a human smuggler, to bring her from El Salvador to the U.S. border. She had crossed the Rio Grande where Reynosa, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, meets McAllen, Texas. She was arrested in McAllen and placed into the migrant detention center there. Days later, she says she and other Salvadorans and Hondurans were placed onto a bus in handcuffs. Several hours later, she arrived at an airport.
“Once I saw the airport in Texas, I knew something wasn’t right,” she says.
She wasn’t sure where she was. She says the bus passed signs indicating the airport was somewhere either in or near San Antonio. She says that she was crushed when she saw a lone jet at an otherwise empty, non-civilian airport waiting to meet the bus
“They told me I was going to another place to continue my application for asylum. I wasn’t sure where that was but I thought it was inside the U.S.,” she says.
Diaz was being sent to Guatemala. I heard similar stories from multiple people unsure of where they were going when they departed Texas or what it meant for their U.S. asylum cases. A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson asserted in an emailed statement that asylum seekers are told that they’re being sent to Guatemala.N
Eduardo Woltke says the asylum arrivals are at immediate risk. He defends migrant rights in the Office of Guatemala’s Attorney General.
“The people sent here need clear information. I don’t know what happened in Texas. But many people say they signed papers that they thought would send them to their home countries. Then they found themselves here,” he said.
They found themselves in a country that many are trying to leave. In 2019, Guatemala was the largest source of migrants detained at the U.S. border, more than 264,000.“More than 800 people have been sent here so far but just 25 have applied for asylum,” Woltke said “We have interviewed many people who say asylum in Guatemala is not an option. I think most of them will try to return to the U.S.,” Woltke says.
There are fewer than a dozen asylum officers in Guatemala. It takes years to get a decision. Very few are accepted.“When they arrive in Guatemala, they’re afraid. They start crying,” said Manuel Aguirre, who manages a migrant shelter in Guatemala City’s Zona 1. He said the people he meets are crushed but undeterred
“They tell me that they would prefer to die trying again to go to the United States than to go back to their own countries,” Aguirre said..
The union representing U.S. asylum and refugee officers has filed a brief in federal court stating the policy is sending vulnerable people to a country in which “their lives and freedom are directly threatened.” As for Blanca Díaz, she knew exactly what her next step would be.
“I’m going back to the U.S. again. At least I’m going to try. Because I am not staying here in Guatemala and for sure, I’m not going back to El Salvador,” she said.
International law does not allow the U.S. to deport asylum seekers directly back to their home countries. The U.S. is using Guatemala as a way station. For most people, it’s a stop on the way back to the U.S.Guatemala’s government affords people such as Díaz 72 hours – three days – to apply for asylum, but only for asylum in Guatemala. After that, they’re supposed to be deported to their home countries. That doesn’t appear to be happening on a large scale. So people such as Díaz are in a bind. She said she will not even contemplate staying in Guatemala. Nor will she return to her home in El Salvador.
However, the U.S. is also not a legal option. Before getting on the plane in Texas, Díaz and the others signed papers saying they can’t legally return to the U.S. for five years. Díaz has close family in Houston and Dallas. She was already in touch with them as she prepared to leave once again on the migrant trail.