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US, El Salvador Sign Asylum Deal       09/21 08:58

   NEW YORK (AP) -- The United States on Friday signed an agreement that paves 
the way for the U.S. to send many asylum-seekers to one of the world's most 
violent countries, El Salvador.

   But both countries must first take necessary legal actions and implement 
major border security and asylum procedures before it would go into effect, 
according to a draft copy of the agreement obtained by The Associated Press.

   The deal is the latest ambitious step taken by the Trump administration to 
lean on other nations --- many of them notoriously violent --- to take in 
immigrants to stop the flow of migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border.

   U.S. immigration officials also are forcing more than 42,000 people to 
remain in Mexico as their cases play out and have changed policy to deny asylum 
to anyone who transited through a third country en route to the southern border 
of the U.S.

   Curbing immigration is a signature political issue for Trump and one that 
thrills his supporters. But the U.S. is also managing a crush of migrants at 
the border that has strained the system.

   Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and El Salvador's foreign 
minister, Alexandra Hill Tinoco, signed the "cooperative asylum agreement" in a 
live-streamed press conference on Friday.

   They lauded the two countries for working together to stem migration to the 
U.S. but provided few details about the agreement.

   Condemnation from migrant and refugee advocates was swift.

   "Where will they declare a haven for asylum seekers next? Syria? North 
Korea? This is cynical and absurd. El Salvador is in no way safe for asylum 
seekers," said Refugees International President Eric Schwartz.

   Meghan Lopez, country director for El Salvador at the International Rescue 
Committee, said the U.S. government is "attempting once more to turn its back 
on extremely vulnerable people."

   "El Salvador is not safe for many of its own nationals and is struggling to 
meet their needs, which is why many seek asylum in the United States. It is 
unrealistic to expect El Salvador to be able to offer protection to 
asylum-seekers fleeing conditions comparable to those in El Salvador."

   El Salvadorans are excluded from the agreement, according to the draft.

   McAleenan, who called the agreement "a big step forward," and Hill Tinoco 
discussed U.S. assistance in making El Salvador a safer and more prosperous 
place for its citizens. Hill Tinoco talked about ending gang violence.

   "I mean, those individuals threaten people, those individuals kill people, 
those individuals request for the poorest and most vulnerable population to pay 
just to cross the street," she said, adding that her country needs more 
investment from the U.S. and other nations.

   The agreement, first reported by The Associated Press, could lead to 
migrants from third countries obtaining refuge in El Salvador if they pass 
through that country on their way to the U.S., Hill Tinoco said in an interview 
with the AP.

   But she said most migrants who travel north don't pass through El Salvador, 
which is on the western edge of Central America and is much smaller 
geographically than its neighbor to the east, Honduras.

   She told The AP the details would need to be hammered out, including border 
security, asylum procedures and potential aid from the U.S. She said the 
agreement is a starting point, and they expected negotiations on possible aid 
to continue.

   "It has to be a real partnership," she said, which means the U.S. would have 
to give something.

   The country's new president, Nayib Bukele, has made clear he wishes to be an 
ally to the U.S., Hill Tinoco said.

   "It is a complete 180 in terms of foreign policy," she said.

   McAleenan said the agreement advanced El Salvador's commitment to developing 
an asylum framework, with help from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

   "This will build on the good work we have accomplished already with El 
Salvador's neighbor, Guatemala, in building protection capacity to try to 
further our efforts to provide opportunities to seek protection for political, 
racial, religious or social group persecution as close as possible to the 
origin of individuals that need it," he said.

   Guatemala officials are still working on how to implement a "safe third 
country" agreement with the U.S. signed earlier this summer.

   The arrangement with El Salvador was not described as a safe third country 
agreement, under which nations agree that their respective countries are safe 
enough and have robust enough asylum systems, so that if migrants transit 
through one of the countries they must remain there instead of moving on to 
another country.

   The U.S. officially has only one such agreement in place, with Canada.

   The Trump administration this year threatened to withhold all federal 
assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras unless they did more to end 
the migrant crisis.

   The move was met by stiff resistance in Congress as experts had said the 
cuts would likely only exacerbate the number of migrants seeking to make the 
hazardous journey to the U.S. because of a further lack of resources.

   On Thursday, the U.S. announced a plan to promote economic development in 
Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador --- as long as fewer migrants end 
up at the U.S. border.

   Mauricio Claver-Clarone, national security adviser in charge of Latin 
America, said U.S. investment would occur soon but it was contingent on a 
continued reduction in the number of migrants. He didn't specify how much 
Washington plans to give to promote economic growth in those countries.

   In June, the State Department announced that the Trump administration was 
reversing some of the cuts but would not approve future aid to those nations. 
The State Department said then that some $370 million from the 2018 budget will 
not be spent and instead will be moved to other projects.

   El Salvador is plagued by gangs and is among the world's deadliest 
countries, with one of the highest homicide rates on the globe.

   According to a 2018 State Department report, human rights issues included 
allegations of "unlawful killings of suspected gang members and others by 
security forces; forced disappearances by military personnel; torture by 
security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest 
and detention; lack of government respect for judicial independence."


(KR)

 
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