U.S. envoy offers farm visas to boost asylum deal with Guatemala

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - In a bid to strengthen an asylum deal forged between Guatemala’s outgoing president and the United States, a U.S. official offered on Monday to triple the number of temporary farmworker visas available to Guatemalans.

FILE PHOTO: Foreman Roberto Navarrete, 30, (C) supervises farmworkers with H2A visas as they harvest romaine lettuce in King City, California, U.S., April 17, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

Last month, under threat of painful sanctions issued by U.S. President Donald Trump, Guatemala’s Jimmy Morales agreed to require U.S.-bound Hondurans and Salvadorans to seek refuge in Guatemala instead of proceeding north.

The deal, known as a “safe third country” agreement, is meant to reduce U.S. asylum claims. While hailed by Trump, it has also provoked widespread criticism from rights groups citing the risks of sending vulnerable people to a country with endemic poverty and violence.

Guatemala’s incoming president, Alejandro Giammattei, won a runoff election earlier this month and said afterwards that the deeply unpopular deal still needs to be approved by Guatemala’s legislature as well as the U.S. Congress, further complicating its future.

The conservative Giammattei, who takes office in January, has also criticized the deal as “not right for the country,” citing Guatemala’s lack of resources to provide for asylum seekers.

On a trip to Guatemala this week, White House Latin America adviser Mauricio Claver-Carone sought to shore up support for the deal.

“We could help Guatemala by tripling the H-2A program,” he told reporters on Monday at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in the Guatemalan capital.

The H-2A visa is for temporary foreign farmworkers and last year nearly 4,000 Guatemalans were recipients, according to U.S. government data.

Mexican farmworkers were awarded far more H-2A visas in 2018 - around 180,000.

The envoy did not provide further details on the visa offer.

He said Guatemala would soon be entering into an agreement with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR to help process asylum seekers and that the U.S. government would help finance it.

“UNHCR should be part of the process and the development of the agreement. We’re counting on it,” he said.

Morales’ office and the UNHCR did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien