WASHINGTON, DC – President Donald Trump thanked Guatemala's president Tuesday for becoming a more active partner in helping stem a tide of migrants seeking to gain asylum in the United States.
Trump praised President Jimmy Morales during the leader's visit to the White House, an invitation that came after Guatemala in July signed a “safe third country” agreement with the United States that's meant to slow the flow of migrants from Central America coming to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Under the agreement, migrants — including those fleeing from El Salvador and Honduras who cross into Guatemala before arriving at the U.S. border — are required to first apply for protections in Guatemala.
“In past administrations, they and others would not take people back, so we had very dangerous people in our country," Trump said. “We never had agreements with anybody. They just wouldn’t take them back. Now, they take them back, and they take them back with open arms."
Trump and first lady Melania Trump hosted Morales and his wife, Marroquin Argueta de Morales, for the Oval Office visit months after Trump threatened Morales, as well as officials in El Salvador and Honduras, that he would pursue tariffs or withhold aid from the nations if a deal wasn't reached.
Trump, who has begun ramping up his 2020 reelection effort, has sought to make bolstering security at the U.S.-Mexico border a signature issue of his presidency.
Morales said “by no means we can endanger minors or populations who are vulnerable to coming to the border illegally.”
Separately, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Panama's Minister of Public Security Rolando Mirones on Tuesday signed a letter of intent to improve the two countries’ collaborative security efforts. The letter marks the 13th document signed between DHS and Central American nations since June that addresses illegal migration, border security, and economic development in the region.
The Trump administration has not yet released any data on the number of migrants returned to Guatemala since the signing of the agreement, though immigrant advocates in the U.S. have confirmed in recent weeks that at least a few Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers have been sent to Guatemala from U.S. immigrant detention centers.
Some Democratic lawmakers and immigrant advocates criticized the agreement, saying Guatemala is hardly a safe option for many Honduran and Salvadoran migrants seeking asylum in the United States.
Conditions on the ground in Guatemala — gang violence, poverty, joblessness, and a prolonged drought that has severely hit crop yields — are on par with what Salvadoran and Hondurans migrants fleeing their countries are facing.
AP writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed reporting.