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Requiring Migrants to Apply for Asylum in the First Country They Enter May Not Resolve the Central American Crisis

The Brief

In May 2019, Mexico and the United States negotiated an agreement expanding enforcement along Mexico’s southern border in response to President Trump’s threats of tariffs on Mexican goods. However, recent history suggests that a “first-entry” resettlement plan with Mexico or Central America may compound the current migration crisis.

In May 2019, Mexico and the United States negotiated an agreement expanding enforcement along Mexico’s southern border in response to President Trump’s threats of tariffs on Mexican goods. The deal left open the possibility of developing a bilateral asylum plan that would mirror other “country of first-entry” asylum resettlement agreements like the U.S.-Canada Safe Third Agreement and the European Union’s (EU) Dublin III Regulation, which requires asylum seekers1 to apply for protection in the first country they enter that has signed the agreement. However, recent history suggests that a “first-entry” resettlement plan with Mexico or Central America may compound the current migration crisis by offloading the work of processing asylum seekers from the United States to Central American countries without the resources to accommodate these populations.

Broadly, “first-entry” asylum agreements require the signatory parties to agree to accept and process asylum seekers if they enter their territory first. For instance, the U.S.-Canada Safe Third Country Agreement requires asylum seekers to apply for protection in Canada or the United States when they arrive2 in one of these countries. If a migrant enters the United States from Canada seeking asylum status, the United States can return them to Canada for processing under the agreement; the same rules apply in reverse. The Dublin III Regulation, which oversees the processing of asylum seekers in the EU, requires asylum seekers who travel from a non-EU member state to an EU member state3 to apply for protection in this state, which are known as countries of first entry. If migrants travel to another EU member state from the country of first entry to claim asylum, the second EU member state can deport them to the country of first entry under the regulation’s provisions.

Recent events suggest that these agreements can struggle to manage dramatic surges in extraordinary migration events. The Dublin III Regulation failed to manage the European migration crisis because it did not establish any mechanisms that would allow EU member states to receive asylum seekers based on their institutional capacity in the case of high-volume migration events. Instead, the Dublin regime forced the EU’s southeastern border states like Greece, Italy, and Hungary to process the influx of asylum seekers even though they lacked the capacity, a situation that undermined the EU and its member states’ ability to control the migrant surge during its initial stages. In later stages, objections from these first entry countries forced individual EU member states to take additional asylum seekers to mitigate these problems created by the Dublin regime.4

Although the scope of the European migration crisis is much larger than its Central American counterpart, the United States’ discussion of a “first-entry” agreement with Mexico, and possibly the Northern Triangle countries, could replicate Dublin III’s failures by offloading historic levels of asylum-seeking migrants to countries with few resources to process them. In Mexico’s case, the country already has struggled to process a historic influx of asylum applications that has strained its resources, and has sought assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The situation is more dire in the three Northern Triangle countries, which have even fewer resources than the Mexican government to process and resettle large numbers of asylum seekers from the region. Without a burden sharing mechanism that assesses a country’s ability to receive migrants, a straightforward “first-entry” agreement would likely result in continued migration outside of these regulated channels and undermine the region’s ability to effectively manage the crisis.

As we have written, we believe that the Central American migration crisis requires a genuine regional response where every country in the region contributes to managing these migrant flows. Rather than pursuing an equitable agreement to address this challenge, the Trump administration has used economic threats and cuts to foreign assistance to force these countries to potentially accede to a “first-entry” agreement that would duplicate the logistical failures of the European model. Rather than taking this approach, the United States and its partners should establish a regional migration plan that coordinates the resettlement of migrants based a country’s capacity, provides these countries with resources to strengthen their asylum systems, and gives migrants the voluntary opportunity to apply for asylum in the United States in certain zones in the region. While this plan would not immediately end the current regional crisis, it would establish the framework for its successful long-term management.


1 This blog post uses the term “asylum seeker” for migrants that travel to other countries to seek humanitarian protection. This term is distinct from refugee, which are migrants that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and partner governments identify, screen, and resettle in their countries through their respective refugee programs to provide protection to this population.
2 The agreement’s provisions apply to asylum seekers who enter these countries at U.S.-Canadian land border crossings and through trains and to third country nationals traveling by air if they travel through Canada or the United States after the other government has denied their asylum request and deported them from their territory.
3 The three iterations of the Dublin Regulation have applied to every of the EU’s 28 member states aside from Denmark, which has a special agreement with the EU. The agreement also applies to three non-EU member states: Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland.
4 For instance, Germany and the Czech Republic essentially suspended the Dublin III Regulation in Fall 2015 to process significantly more Syrian refugees entering the EU after countries like Hungary declared that their migration systems did not have the resources to receive more migrants.

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