Op-Ed: Trump may wish Guatemala were a safe place for asylum applicants to wait, but it’s not

Honduran immigrants climb aboard a northbound truck in Guatemala in October 2018.
Honduran immigrants passing through Guatemala City in 2018 were hoping to reach the United States.
(Esteban Biba / EPA/Shutterstock )
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Last week, a planned visit of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales to the White House was canceled after the Guatemalan Constitutional Court threw up a roadblock to the deal the two presidents planned to discuss. President Trump was seeking a “safe third country” agreement, which would have required asylum seekers fleeing other Central American countries to make their applications in Guatemala instead of at the U.S. border.

But even without the agreement, President Trump has moved ahead to make Guatemala a key part of U.S. immigration policy, issuing a new rule that would deny nearly all Central Americans the right to apply for protection at the U.S. southern border unless they have applied for and been denied asylum in Guatemala or Mexico.

The new rule rests on the same false assumption as the agreement Trump sought from Morales: that Guatemala, with one of the highest rates of violent deaths in the world, can offer protection to people fleeing violence in El Salvador and Honduras.


Guatemala is far from a safe haven. Violent crime, institutional corruption and domestic abuse are epidemic. The country has the world’s third-highest rate of femicide — and those who kill women usually get away with it.

We have spent decades studying state violence and gender violence in Guatemala, examining the role of sexual violence in the massacres of indigenous Guatemalans and the legal and judicial system failures that sustain gender-based violence. Last year, we provided an expert declaration describing conditions in Guatemala in support of a federal lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s gutting of asylum protections for immigrants fleeing domestic violence and gang violence. Thankfully, the court upheld the essential right to seek asylum on the basis of gender-based persecution and gang violence. But with the administration’s new rule, those rights are again in question.

Guatemala’s troubles stem from its 30-year civil war, which essentially devastated the country’s civic institutions. A long history of U.S. military, economic, and political intervention in Guatemala and the region contributed to the problems.

During the civil war, indigenous Mayan peoples were massacred by the military and entire communities were destroyed. When the conflict ended, the country dissolved into lawlessness. The Guatemalan government retreated, leaving a void of authority that was quickly filled by organized crime groups, both large and small.

These days, more than 70 gangs, or clicas, control much of the country’s territory, and they generate their livelihood through extortion, bribery, murder and rape. In fact, “post-conflict” Guatemala is far more violent than at any time during its 30-year armed conflict.

Criminal organizations have been able to gain such control in part because they have compromised numerous government officials and state institutions. Political parties and public officials receive significant funding from the crime groups. Yet this is a place that the U.S. asserts is safe for those seeking refuge.


Until recently, U.S. law recognized that people fleeing persecution at home possess a legitimate right to seek asylum in the United States. They are not guaranteed asylum, of course, but they have the right to apply for it. Today, the Trump administration is working actively to weaken, if not eliminate entirely, legal and ethical commitments that have evolved over decades.

Two lawsuits were filed recently to challenge the new asylum rule, which opponents say violates domestic and international law. On Wednesday, a Washington judge refused to immediately halt the action. A San Francisco judge, however, granted an injunction against the rule. We strongly hope the courts ultimately exercise their responsibility to halt the administration’s irresponsible action.

Trying to wish Guatemala into a place where endangered families can safely seek asylum denies an essential reality: A country that cannot guarantee safety to its own citizens cannot guarantee it for others seeking protection. And a country that can offer safety to those fleeing persecution at home, must not shirk its responsibility to do so.

Cecilia Menjívar is a professor of sociology at UCLA. M. Gabriela Torres is professor and chair of the anthropology department at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. Additional research was provided by Tova Walsh, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.