(This October 15 story corrects to show Claver-Carone works for White House National Security Council, not State Department, in paragraph 4)
By Daniel Trotta
(Reuters) - A senior White House official on Tuesday warned Guatemala that it must reach agreement with the United States on accepting asylum-seekers from other countries in order to benefit from a regional economic development plan.
Guatemalan President-elect Alejandro Giammattei has balked at accepting “safe third country” status with the United States, even though the government of outgoing President Jimmy Morales reached such a deal in July.
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has demanded help from Mexico and Central America to curtail a record surge in immigration, a central political focus of Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.
Guatemala must embrace a safe third country agreement if it hopes to benefit from the economic development plan for Mexico and Central America known as America Crece, said Mauricio Claver-Carone, a special assistant to Trump and senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the White House National Security Council.
“Of course, these agreements are a condition for participating in the economic growth plan,” Claver-Carone said in a State Department video in which he answered written questions from reporters.
“If for any reason President Giammattei decides not to participate in these agreements, he is going to lose a great economic development opportunity for Guatemala,” he said.
Claver-Carone revealed few details of the America Crece (America Grows) plan for El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, saying the U.S. economic commitment would be announced early next year.
In recent months, the United States has threatened tariffs or economic sanctions to pressure its southern neighbors to do more on immigration. Giammattei, who takes office in January, has said that Guatemala would first need be certified as a safe third country by an international body. Giammattei has also said both houses of the Guatemalan Congress would need to ratify any deal.
By accepting safe third country deals, Central American governments could help Trump implement a new U.S. rule that would deny asylum to immigrants unless they first apply in a country they have traveled through on the way.
The United States has reached at least preliminary agreements with Honduras and El Salvador as well. Most of the increased immigration the past two years has come from those two countries along with Guatemala, each of them impoverished and plagued with some of the highest murder rates in the world.
U.S. officials have spoken with Giammattei on the matter, Claver-Carone said, calling the president-elect “a person with great leadership.”
Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Cynthia Osterman