As It Happens

U.S. congresswoman from Guatemala says it's 'absolutely not' a safe 3rd country

Guatemala is not prepared to receive migrants who have been turned away from the U.S., says California Congresswoman Norma Torres. 

Asylum seeker sent from U.S. to Guatemala last week is the 1st person deported under deal signed this year

U.S. Democratic congresswoman Norma Torres says Guatemala is not prepared to take in thousands of migrants trying to reach the U.S. (Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)


Guatemala is "absolutely not" a safe country, and the Central American nation is not prepared to receive migrants who have been turned away from the U.S., says California Congresswoman Norma Torres. 

On Thursday, Honduran Erwin Ardon became the first asylum seeker to be sent from the U.S. to Guatemala after the two countries signed a "safe third country" deal earlier this year.

The agreement gives U.S. immigration officials the power to make migrants requesting asylum at the U.S.-Mexican border apply for asylum in Guatemala first. 

That's because many migrants pass through Guatemala on their way to the U.S., making it the first "safe country" they set foot in. Similar agreements have been signed with El Salvador and Honduras, but have yet to take effect.

Rep. Torres is the only Guatemalan-born member of U.S. Congress. Here's part of her conversation with As It Happens host, Carol Off. 

Is Guatemala a safe third country, in your view? 

Absolutely not. Guatemala is far from being a safe third country. 

Right now, they are experiencing a lot of violence — and not just violence, but a turbulent time with their government. 

I think Guatemala has gone back to an era where the rule of law is no longer being obeyed. 

Erwin Jose Ardon, centre, is the first Central American asylum seeker sent to Guatemala under that country's 'safe third country' agreement with the U.S. (Elmer Martinez/Associated Press)

But the United States has declared it a safe third country, which is why people are able to be sent back there as we saw with Erwin Ardon. So what is likely to happen for asylum seekers who are deported back to Guatemala? 

We will soon find out. 

I think asylum seekers returned back to Guatemala will find an environment that is not friendly to, you know, foreigners. 

I think when it comes to jobs, it's not a place where you can easily find, you know, a good job.

It certainly doesn't have the housing that they need for their own people, much less for asylum seekers that are being returned. 

This man who has just been recently ... deported to Guatemala as a safe third country, he's probably not the best example of what you're describing because he said himself that he wasn't really an asylum seeker. He wanted to move to the United States to be with his family and he is not under any immediate danger in his native Honduras. He has even chosen to return to Honduras. 

So what does that say about possible people who are going to be sent to Guatemala or another country? 

I don't believe that Guatemala is prepared to receive the … people that would be returned back to the region. 

So I think the effort is laughable. We should be looking for partners in the region. But certainly Guatemala isn't one of those. 

I think that [Guatemalan] President [Jimmy] Morales was sort of bullied into signing on to an agreement in exchange for the U.S. turning a blind eye to the corrupt issues that have been alleged against him. 

An investigation that was started by [the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala] is still pending and it will never be completed because they don't have a government or a judicial system that could sustain an investigation of, you know, one of the highest people in their elected office.

Ardon says he left Honduras two months ago because he wanted to see his daughter in the United States. (Luis Echeverria/Reuters)

So do you believe that President Morales of Guatemala was given some kind of signal, some assistance from the United States in his legal troubles? 

Absolutely. The U.S. has, in recent years, since President [Donald] Trump came to office … turned a blind eye to, you know, a lot of the things that they have done.

Now that President Morales is leaving office, [under] his successor Alejandro Giammattei, will things change?  Do you think that agreement that was struck with the Trump administration will hold? 

I am not sure. 

I think, you know, the incoming president has signaled that he would like to revisit those terms. He wants to ensure that … there is some assistance there for the humanitarian assistance that these refugees will need. 

Certainly the ones that are not Guatemalan, coming back to Guatemala, you know, they need an infrastructure of safe places for them to stay. You know, they need an infrastructure of jobs that they could possibly qualify for while they are there in the country. 

I think it's smart for him to make those signals. How much of it is he going to be able to negotiate with this administration? You know, we'll soon find out in January when he takes office.

U.S. President Donald Trump walks to acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, right, and Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart in the Oval Office. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

You know that Canada has a safe third country agreement with the United States. We regard the United States as a safe third country. Many people now disagree with that. They think that we shouldn't have an agreement even with your country. What do you make of that? 

I'm sorry Canadians feel that way. 

This administration is here, but presidents come and go. Americans will continue to embrace Canadians and a Canadian culture the way we have for many, many generations. And I hope that we can get back to those terms that we were before Mr. Trump came to office.

But President Trump says that the United States is full. That they can't take more people. He seems to have a lot of support within his base, his constituency. Do you think that this is a political decision? 

It is absolutely a political decision. It is President Trump's racist way of keeping people that, you know ... don't look like him from coming to the U.S. 

Written by Katie Geleff with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.