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Opinion: Trump Administration’s Stick and Carrot Approach to Central America Undermines Immigration and COVID-19 Management in the Region

In May, the Trump administration began screening Guatemalan nationals being deported to Guatemala for COVID-19. Although this news suggests that the White House has been actively working with Guatemala to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the region, these measures only emerged after the Guatemalan government pushed back against the administration’s pressure to accept deportees regardless of their health conditions. This struggle encapsulates administration’s approach to the region, which has placed strains on the immigration and health systems in the Northern Triangle.

The struggle over deportations to Guatemala emerged from the administration’s efforts to force the Northern Triangle countries to prioritize immigration concerns over halting the spread of COVID-19. In mid-March, Guatemala suspended the Asylum Cooperative Agreement that allowed the United States to send asylum-seekers from other countries to Guatemala and began introducing other measures to limit or halt the reception of deported Guatemalan nationals. The Guatemalan government stated that half of Guatemalan deportees had COVID-19 and formed 15% of all nationwide COVID-19 cases. Although El Salvador suspended the reception of Salvadoran deportees in mid-March, it reversed course by April.

The Trump administration has used both sticks and carrots to push these countries to accept deportees amidst the pandemic. On April 10, the administration issued a memo threatening visa sanctions against countries that refused to receive deportations of their nationals. President Trump subsequently announced that he would send ventilators to El Salvador and Honduras if they curbed illegal immigration. The recent publication of the Honduran version of the Asylum Cooperative Agreement in the Federal Register, the first step in implementing the deal, reinforces the administration’s wresting of immigration help from these countries.

The administration’s strong-arm approach towards these countries this spring marks a continuation of Trump’s regional immigration strategy. In June 2019, the administration suspended $550 million in congressionally-appropriated development aid for the three Northern Triangle countries over their perceived failure to reduce an influx of Central American migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. The countries subsequently signed bilateral asylum agreements that allowed the United States to send back asylum-seekers to their territories for asylum processing. The Trump administration expanded the number of H-2A visas for Guatemalan nationals and reinstated a reported $143 million in aid to reward the countries’ compliance with its immigration priorities.

This quid pro quo approach is counterproductive in two ways. Rather than improving the ability of the United States to adjudicate asylum claims, it forces Northern Triangle countries to be responsible for this process, placing significant strains on their immigration systems. For instance, in early March the Guatemalan government requested the United States limit the number of people sent there under the ACA after the number of returnees exceeded the country’s ability to process them. Without additional assistance and resources to support their own asylum processes, the administration’s policy fails to create a strategy where every country can effectively contribute to migration management based on their existing capacity.

This approach also places strains on the countries’ healthcare systems. Although Central American governments have restricted travel to their countries, the deportation of their nationals who may have contracted COVID-19 in the United States has created a channel for the virus to enter these countries. The virus’s capacity to rapidly spread through populations will place significant burdens on healthcare systems that lack the resources to manage a massive outbreak. Although the administration has improved cooperation with Guatemala, it has already deported individuals carrying the virus to the Northern Triangle, evidence of the public health risks of prioritizing U.S. immigration concerns over public health in the region.

Improving U.S. immigration adjudication and enforcement systems would address these issues. First, the United States must invest in the immigration court system to process more asylum claims. Our enforcement system should introduce greater discretion over the detention of immigrants, especially for low-level immigration infractions. The Department of Homeland Security should also release vulnerable populations from detention during public health emergencies, albeit with testing and a quarantine plan that requires them to comply with the removal process. Finally, we should restart alternative to detention pilot programs to determine which ones decrease the detention population while ensuring that participants comply with court hearings and removal orders.

These measures would produce two positive outcomes. Investing in the United States’ adjudication capacity would eliminate the burden that the administration’s current immigration strategy places on Northern Triangle countries. Enforcement reforms would also allow the United States to ensure that viruses and other communicable diseases do not spread through large detained populations, limiting the United States’ ability to export diseases through deportations. While these measures will not eradicate the current pandemic, they will leave the United States and the Northern Triangle governments prepared for future public health emergencies and a stronger system to manage migration in the region.

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