After Guatemala, U.S. seeks migration deals with Honduras, El Salvador

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - The U.S. homeland security chief said in Guatemala on Thursday that the United States is pursuing “similar agreements” with Honduras and El Salvador on migration in its drive to turn the region into a buffer zone for U.S.-bound migrants.

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U.S. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan made the comment in Guatemala City after the Central American nation last week agreed to become a “safe third country” to accept migrants trying to reach the United States.

“This is not something that the United States is asking to work on with Guatemala alone. We see this as a regional responsibility,” McAleenan said during a speech in Guatemala City. “We are now seeking discussions with Honduras and El Salvador about similar arrangements.”

Government spokesmen in El Salvador and Honduras did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

U.S. President Donald Trump has pushed Mexico and Guatemala to sign such agreements to make asylum seekers passing through their territory solicit safe haven in those countries, instead of the United States, where authorities have been struggling to cope with a surge in illegal immigration this year.

Mexico has so far refused. Guatemala agreed after Trump threatened to impose what President Jimmy Morales described on Facebook as “drastic” economic sanctions against the country, which is heavily dependent on billions of dollars in remittances sent home by Guatemalans in the United States.

Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart said on Thursday the country would only accept migrants from El Salvador and Honduras under the deal with the United States.

“We will orient (the program) to the primary nationalities that, in the case of Honduras and El Salvador, represent almost half” of migrants detained at the U.S. southern border, Degenhart told reporters.

U.S. officials are already on the ground in Guatemala as part of the deal to curb migrant flows, he added.

The deal allows Guatemalans to apply for temporary visas to work in the agricultural sectors in the United States and, eventually, in the construction and service sectors.

Speaking at the end of a two-day visit to Guatemala City, McAleenan said the United States welcomes the participation of Guatemalan agricultural workers in the U.S. economy.

Separately on Thursday, a federal judge in San Francisco denied the Trump administration request to move forward pending an appeal with a rule that would bar anyone who had passed through a third country from seeking asylum at the U.S. southern border.

Rights groups in the United States quickly challenged the sweeping new rule, which the Trump administration signed before the deal with Guatemala. Last week, Obama-appointed judge Jon Tigar temporarily blocked the rule from taking effect.

In his Thursday ruling, Tigar wrote that “the Court found that the Rule was substantively invalid because it conflicted with the core principle that asylum ... is designed to protect [refugees] with nowhere else to turn.”

Reporting by Sofia Menchu and Mica Rosenberg; writing by Julia Love; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Bill Berkrot