GUATEMALA CITY — Hundreds of Guatemalans gathered Saturday to protest an agreement that President Jimmy Morales' government signed with Washington to require migrants passing through the Central American country to seek asylum here, rather than pushing on to the U.S.
Carrying the blue and white national flag, demonstrators rallied in front of the presidential palace in Guatemala City. They called on Morales to resign for having caved in to U.S. demands to make Guatemala a "safe third country" for migrants, including those headed north from El Salvador and Honduras.
The protesters also carried signs calling for Guatemala to maintain its sovereignty and expressing support for a United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission that Morales expelled from the country. Morales' four-year term ends in January, and an August runoff election is scheduled to determine his successor.
Human rights activist Brenda Hernández, one of the organizers of the protest march, said this poor nation can barely take care of its own people, much less shelter vulnerable migrants.
"Guatemala doesn't have the capacity to be a safe country for migrants that aren't desired in the United States," she said.
The same conditions driving Salvadorans and Hondurans to flee their country — gang violence, poverty, joblessness and a prolonged drought that has severely hit crop yields — are also present in Guatemala.
Guatemala's state attorney for human rights, Jordán Rodas, also criticized the accord with the U.S., saying it violates the Vienna Convention because Guatemala signed under duress.
As talks toward an immigration agreement stumbled, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to tax remittances sent home by Guatemalans working in the U.S., to impose import tariffs on Guatemalan goods and to restrict travel to the U.S. by Guatemalans.
Rodas described the accord as "immoral and illegal."
Guatemala's top court has said the agreement must be approved by the country's congress to be enforceable.
Stephen McFarland, a former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, chastised the Trump administration for bullying Guatemala into the agreement.
"It is possible that Guatemala's lame-duck congress would approve the agreement, given government and private sector support, despite overwhelmingly negative public opinion," McFarland wrote on Twitter.
But he added that "it is unlikely to be sustainable" under the next Guatemalan administration.
Guatemalans accounted for 34% of Border Patrol detentions on the U.S.-Mexico border from October to June, more than any other nationality. Hondurans were second at 30%, followed by Mexicans at 18% and Salvadorans at 10%.
As part of the asylum agreement, the U.S. has promised to increase access to the H-2A visa program for temporary agricultural workers from Guatemala.