Central American nation blocks deportation flights from U.S.

Deportation flights from the U.S. to Guatemala have been paused. Guatemala officials, under instructions from President Alejandro Giammattei closed the country’s borders for fifteen days. The action was taken “as a precautionary measure” while additional health checks are established to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

This pause in normal operations has an immediate effect on the Trump administration’s policy of barring asylum-seeking migrants from the region. Guatemala plays an important role in the Trump administration’s immigration policy enforcement efforts. It is the primary transit country for people coming through Central America to the U.S. southern border. In recent days, the country has blocked entry to Americans, as well as travelers from Canada and a few European and Asian countries.

Guatemala has six confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the government is taking strong, aggressive measures to squash the pandemic’s spread. COVID-19 spreads rapidly and Guatemala is the first in the region to bar Americans from entry. Other Western Hemisphere countries are taking measures to bar Americans from entering, such as El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, and Peru. Some are shutting borders, even to their own returning citizens.

So, where does this leave the agreement made between the U.S. and Guatemala to assist in securing the U.S.- Mexico border? Nowhere. Right now, it’s shut down, for the time being, another piece in the puzzle of how countries move forward in light of the threats posed by COVID-19. Closing off a country from incoming travelers is a step in mitigating the spread of the disease.

The agreement, known as the Asylum Cooperative Agreement, was signed by the previous Guatemalan government and President Trump. It was signed after much consternation from the Guatemalan government officials. Guatemala was concerned from the jump that the number of migrants sent back for them to process would be too much to handle. Its high court initially blocked the agreement. President Giammattei took office in January.

Guatemala has been a partner in Central America to the Trump administration by accepting the asylum-seekers as it allows them to seek asylum there instead of in the U.S. Since November, more than 900 men, women and children who have arrived at the U.S. border from El Salvador and Honduras have been sent to Guatemala.

Before the decision to block deportation flights, the Guatemalan government had posted a schedule for 10 flights this week from the United States. One arrived Monday afternoon from Brownsville, Texas, carrying 56 Guatemalans and 17 Salvadorans, but another set for Tuesday was canceled, according to Alejandra Mena, a spokeswoman with Guatemala’s immigration institute.

Guatemalan authorities had said previously that they had been assured by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that they would not send people to Guatemala who were sick or displayed symptoms of the virus.

Returning immigrants receive health screenings before boarding deportation flights and after arriving in Guatemala City, said Joaquin Samayoa, spokesman for the Minister of Foreign Relations in Guatemala. Those found to be sick would be quarantined, he added.

This action against the COVID-19 pandemic also derails preparations being made by the Department of Homeland Security to add Mexican migrants to those being sent to Guatemala, as well as rolling out similar agreements with El Salvador and Honduras. The Honduran government suspended repatriation flights from Mexico last week when three of its citizens exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 after deportation from the U.S. and they were put into isolation. The open-borders crowd expresses concern that the immigration policies of the Trump administration will increase the spread of COVID-19. That’s one way to spin objections to the administration securing the U.S. southern border, right?

Casa del Migrante, a shelter in Guatemala City that since November has housed hundreds of Salvadorans and Hondurans returned under the U.S.-Guatemala agreement, announced over the weekend that it would stop receiving immigrants who had been deported from the U.S. or Mexico.

Mauro Verzeletti, director of the shelter, declared Guatemala’s action “extraordinary” and “a victory.” For days, he had called for the U.S. to stop deportation flights to Guatemala, to slow the spread of the virus. He said the immigrants were already vulnerable to illnesses because they arrived from the U.S. physically exhausted and simply “in a really bad condition.”

Monday, Verzeletti met with Guatemalan officials and diplomats to discuss what he described as a “high-level humanitarian crisis.”

The ACLU joined with other groups to file suit against ICE on Monday. They are asking that migrants in detention be released as they are susceptible to COVID-19. Immigration judges, prosecutors, and lawyers have called on the Justice Department to close immigration courts. I can understand courts closing but releasing those in detention centers? Where would they go? They would be released out into the general public and scatter, as happened before the crackdown by the Trump administration – re-establishing the rule of law. It makes no sense.