Trump’s Threatened Mass Deportation: What’s So, What’s Not

Washington, D.C. On Monday evening, President Trump tweeted that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States” next week. Can this really happen? How soon? And what would that look like?

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This isn’t the first time Trump has threatened to deport undocumented immigrants on a massive scale. Shortly after his inauguration, Trump pledged to deport up to 3 million undocumented immigrants with “criminal records” during an interview with CBS News. That didn’t happen then. And the reality on the ground is far more complicated now.

What is ICE’s record of arrests and deportation?

There are an estimated 11.3 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

In fiscal year 2018, ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) made 158,581 arrests while recording 256,085 ICE removals — an increase from both 2016 and 2017, but a sharp decrease from its peak of 409,849 removals in fiscal year 2012.

Why Trump’s threat is questionable

But even if the president attempted to stay true to his word, there are not nearly enough ICE agents available to conduct an operation of this scale. As the Washington Post reported, such a plan would require weeks of planning, along with hundreds, if not thousands, of agents and law enforcement personnel, who have already been spread thin due to budget limitations and concentrated efforts along the U.S.-Mexico border. Adding to the miscommunication, ICE — which normally does not publicize its operations in advance — appeared to be caught off-guard by the announcement.

Furthermore, there is due process in the United States, and immigration courts are already extremely backlogged. Earlier this month, NPR reported that the backlog has grown to nearly 900,000; the American Bar Association said the courts were “on the brink of collapse.”

Beyond the threatened crackdown on undocumented migrants who have exhausted their deportation appeals, the U.S. has demanded concessions from Mexico and Central American countries to prevent people from illegally crossing the border into the United States.  Trump claimed Monday that Guatemala was “getting ready to sign” an agreement that would force migrants who flee persecution in El Salvador and Honduras to request asylum in Guatemala instead of Mexico or the United States, confirming VOA reporting from last week.  A U.S. delegation traveled to Guatemala last week to seek approval for the “safe third country” protocol.

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What is a “safe third country” agreement?
How would that work if the U.S. and Guatemala signed a deal?

The bilateral agreement would prevent asylum-seekers from Honduras and El Salvador from applying for asylum in the U.S.

The U.S. currently only has one such agreement in place, and that’s with Canada. With few exceptions, such as unaccompanied minors, refugee claimants are “required to request refugee protection in the first safe country they arrive in,” namely the U.S. or Canada — both deemed “safe.”

Guatemalan nationals, on the other hand, account for the second-highest number of asylum-seekers in the U.S., after El Salvador. Gang-related violence in Guatemala remains prevalent.

But if a similar deal to the U.S.-Canada “safe third country” agreement were reached with Guatemala, nationals from neighboring El Salvador and Honduras hoping to reach the U.S. would instead be forced to seek asylum in Guatemala, due to its geographic placement as a gateway to both Mexico and the U.S to its north. Under the proposed draft agreement, if a Central American were to continue north past Guatemala, reaching the United States, U.S. immigration authorities would send them back to Guatemala.

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But are they actually close to signing a deal? The State Department decided to cut millions of dollars in foreign aid to Central America on Monday. Isn’t that a factor?

We don’t yet know. VOA has requested comment from the U.S. State Department and Guatemala’s foreign ministry, and are awaiting answers. According to an internal readout from the first day of talks, they were nowhere close to signing last week.  According to the Thursday readout, Guatemala raised “legal and constitutional issues” that would make a safe third country agreement “a challenging lift.”

Behind closed doors, we don’t know what concessions, if any, were offered since then. We do know that the State Department’s announced foreign aid cuts to the region on Monday — including Guatemala — would sting the impoverished nation. But whether or not this topic was discussed as a part of ongoing bilateral talks is speculation. U.S. State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said the funding, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, would not be provided until the administration is “satisfied [that] the Northern Triangle governments are taking concrete actions to reduce the number of illegal migrants coming to the US border.”

Meanwhile, BuzzFeed News reported Tuesday that the new head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is pressuring asylum officers to stop some asylum-seekers from entering the country during initial border screenings, according to an email sent to staffers.

What has been the international response? Is Guatemala capable of processing asylum requests?

Trump’s barrage of late-evening tweets highlight a pattern of hinting at U.S. policy before any actual agreement is announced. The timing is telling. On Tuesday evening, President Trump was set to formally announce his re-election bid for president at a rally in Orlando, where many supporters of his most hardline immigration measures will be in attendance.

Guatemala aside, the Mexican government has shown hesitance to sign its own “safe third country” deal with the U.S., but has signalled a willingness to join a larger regional asylum pact with countries like Guatemala, Panama, and Brazil, if other efforts to curb the current migration crisis are not met. A regional pact would mean that the burden to process asylum claims would be shared between the countries involved, based on where an asylum-seeker first steps foot.

Human rights organizations, meanwhile, have been swift in their condemnation of such a deal with a Guatemala.

“Guatemala is facing a crisis of governance and many of its own people are fleeing gangs and sexual violence, among other dangers,” Refugees International President Eric Schwartz said in a statement, calling such a deal “unconscionable and inhumane.”

Eleanor Acer, the director of Human Rights First’s Refugee Protection program, said refugees face “very real dangers” in neighboring countries, including risk of refoulement and being reached by persecutors. She has called on the U.S. to instead tackle the root causes of forced displacement using both diplomacy and aid, among other measures.

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Voice of America (VOA) is the official external broadcast institution of the U.S. government. VOA produces about 1,500 hours of news and feature programming each week for an estimated global audience of 123 million people, to promote freedom and democracy and to enhance understanding through multimedia communication of accurate, objective, and balanced news, information and other programming about America and the world to audiences overseas.

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