WASHINGTON — In July, President Trump signed a deal that forces migrants passing through Guatemala to apply for asylum there, rather than cross into Mexico with hopes of eventually showing up on the U.S. border.
But a delegation of congressional Democrats who just got back from the region say that’s impossible because Guatemala is too poor to help its own people, let alone the thousands that will be applying for asylum there under the new policy.
“It’s clear to us that Guatemala is not equipped to be a safe third-party country for safe asylum,” Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) told VICE News at the Capitol Tuesday, after he accompanied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a handful of other Democrats on the trip.
“You’ve got Guatemalans seeking asylum and trying to come to this country, trying to run away from real violence, real threats, real persecution,” he said. “So to think that Guatemala could provide a safe haven for someone from El Salvador or Honduras – they just don’t have the infrastructure, they don’t have the systems in place, they don’t have the resources.”
Guatemala’s newly elected president, conservative lawyer Alejandro Giammattei, agrees. “If we do not have the capacity for our own people, just imagine other people,” he told the AP on Tuesday.
“If we do not have the capacity for our own people, just imagine other people.”
The findings set up a battle over asylum that will take center stage when Congress returns in September. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top lieutenants are vowing to fight the administration and its asylum policies this fall, as well as to reinstate full funding for those three Northern Triangle countries — Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala — that the administration cut off earlier this summer.
“One way we disagree with a policy of the United States is that we should not be cutting off the resources that help the children, that help the women, that help the indigenous people of the region, that help fight corruption, which is key to making a difference,” Speaker Pelosi told reporters Sunday in McAllen, Texas.
In July, Brown introduced The Equal Justice for Immigrants Act. It would allow asylum seekers at the U.S. border to ask for a government-appointed lawyer to represent them, along with ending Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols, which is most commonly known as his “Remain in Mexico” policy because it forces most asylum seekers to get their claims addressed south of the American border.
Even Trump’s critics — who don’t support his aim — say his own policies are at odds with his goal of curbing even legal immigration along the southern border.
Brown, along with Pelosi and other Democratic leaders, are looking to forge a compromise during this fall’s government funding battle to re-exert congressional control over how foreign aid is distributed in the Northern Triangle.
“I think there are enough Republicans and Democrats that are willing to come together in this upcoming series of appropriations bills where we limit the administration’s discretion, which would mandate the spending of the money,” Brown said. “I’d like to see us increase funding, but as a minimum let’s make sure that the appropriations we’ve consistently made go to the countries that are in need.”
But that aspirational thinking may not fly in Trump’s Washington.
Just Monday the administration dropped a new regulation to prioritize the world’s highly educated immigrants over anyone who may need federal assistance if granted a green card.
Trump’s acting head of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service, Ken Cuccinelli, has been making the media rounds explaining that the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty really meant, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and will not become a public charge.”
Before the Senate left Washington for their August recess, Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham broke his committee’s longstanding rules and rammed through a GOP-only bill to force migrants to make asylum claims on their home soil before they can make one in America.
“I will no longer allow our asylum laws to be exploited by human traffickers, smugglers and cartels,” Graham said at the time.
And Graham’s got allies. Last month, the chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), told VICE News he supports Trump’s statements that the U.S. needs to take care of its own before the migrants being held in what critics say are savage conditions along the southern border.
“We never asked people to come into our country illegally,” Johnson told VICE News. “So from a standpoint of, who are we first responsible too? I mean, it is true: To Americans. These are people who come into our country illegally. We afford them all kinds of rights, we do everything we can to take care of them.”
Johnson’s trying to pick up bipartisan support for a pilot program he wants to launch — Operation Safe Return — that he says will send a message to human traffickers by using existing statutes in American law to ship asylum seekers back to their countries of origin.
“There are things we can do using existing authorities, and that’s where I’m going to concentrate on right now because it seems there’s way too large of a divide between the House and the Senate,” Johnson said.
Not all Republicans are so eager to use the hammer just yet though. The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Mike McCaul of Texas, thinks Trump’s current asylum policies are a huge miscalculation.
“I understand the frustration he has, but you’re also shutting down international law enforcement, operations to investigate and prosecute MS-13, so that’s not something you want to cut,” McCaul told VICE News at the Capitol just before the August recess kicked off.
What’s more is McCaul doesn’t even think the president waited for advice from his senior advisors before going it alone in the Northern Triangle.
“This is something that I think the president did, just decided to do it – and when [the] State [Department] and DHS took a look at what that meant, I think they were sort of looking at us to try to fix that,” McCaul said.
McCaul’s not alone. The chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) who he sits across from, also bemoans the current U.S. policy in the region.
He was with Pelosi on her trip to the Northern Triangle and says his report back to his colleagues of all stripes is bleak.
“These programs, in essence, kept some of these dangerous people in their home countries with programs to try to train them and try to keep them from trying to emigrate to the United States, so the policy of cutting off funds is just the opposite of what we should be doing,” Engel said. “And it was also obvious when we would ask American personal there that they can’t move without any kind of funds.”
Cover: U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi attends a news conference at the Air Force Base in Guatemala City, Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019. Pelosi is part of a U.S. congressional delegation on a Central American trip that seeks to explore the causes of immigration amid a crisis of migrants on the southern U.S. border. (AP Photo/Oliver de Ros)