SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah Sen. Mike Lee met with the President of Guatemala Wednesday to discuss an agreement between the two countries that Lee says could help relieve pressure on the U.S. immigration system.

In the Presidential Palace, Lee talked with Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales about the possibility of a “safe third country agreement” between the U.S. and Guatemala.

Such an agreement would require asylum seekers to ask for protection in whichever of the two countries — the U.S. or Guatemala — that they enter first.

“What that means is if you get to another country that could offer you a form of protection, you need to seek asylum in that country,” Lee told the Deseret News in an exclusive phone interview from Guatemala Thursday.

The agreement is designed to relieve pressure on the American immigration system by allowing U.S. authorities to return migrants back to Guatemala if they passed through the country but did not seek asylum there. It would also lighten the load of asylum applications to the U.S. The proposal comes at a time when the border has become so untenable that white tents are being erected in Laredo, Texas as make-shift courts to house immigration proceedings. 

Lee says the proposal, first floated by President Trump, would also help deter migrants without legitimate asylum claims.

“The fact that U.S. asylum laws have been subject to all kinds of abuse and are being abused by the drug cartels has itself created a massive humanitarian crisis,” said Lee. “This kind of agreement will alleviate, to a significant degree, the humanitarian crisis that has been created in part by the asylum laws and their vulnerability to abuse.”

“The fact that there are countries like Guatemala and Mexico that have problems doesn’t mean that they cannot offer asylum to anyone who was subject to persecution in their own home country.” — Utah Sen. Mike Lee

Such an agreement already exists between the United States and Canada. The Trump administration attempted a “lite” version of such an agreement with Mexico earlier this year, called “Remain in Mexico.”

But critics in both the United States and Guatemala have already threatened to fight the plan in court. They say Guatemala lacks adequate resources to handle such a high volume of asylum applicants, and that Guatemala is not a safe place for migrants fleeing violence or persecution.

Sen. Lee said there are parts of every country that aren’t safe, including the United States.

“In every country, there are things that are safe, and there are things that are less safe. The fact that there are countries like Guatemala and Mexico that have problems doesn’t mean that they cannot offer asylum to anyone who was subject to persecution in their own home country,” he said.

Sunset in Seamay, Guatemala.
Alan Gibby, Deseret News

The plan was originally put forward by President Trump in a surprise announcement on July 28. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said in July that the agreement would “increase the integrity of the [asylum] process, keep vulnerable families that are really economic migrants out of the hands of smugglers, and allow us to reach those with asylum claims more expeditiously.”

The plan has yet to be formally signed by Guatemalan officials, Lee says, but added that Morales expressed willingness to move forward, and that there is growing belief that Guatemala’s president-elect, Alejandro Giammattei, will also be open to implement the plan once he takes office.

“[Morales] talked about his willingness and his desire to further [Guatemala’s] relationship with the United States by implementing the agreement,” said Lee.

Safety concerns

As its name suggests, a “safe third country” is a country that the United States has designated as safe enough to provide protection to asylum-seekers fleeing persecution in another country.

It also must be a country that is able to provide asylum seekers with due process, including a fair trial and qualified legal representation, as U.S. asylum law requires. 

The United States’ safe-third country agreement with Canada meets both of these requirements: it is safe enough to ensure that asylum seekers will not face continued persecution, and it has a judicial system capable of processing large numbers of asylum applications. 

Some immigration experts say Guatemala would not meet the criteria for a safe-third country under U.S. law. 

“These countries are simply too poor, and their governments are too corrupt to be able to provide the type of due process that would be necessary for a country to qualify as a safe third country agreement under U.S. law,” says Aaron Tarin, a Utah immigration attorney.

Sen. Mike Lee
Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, questions Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) | Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

But Lee pushed back on the notion that Guatemala wasn’t safe enough to qualify. 

“For safe-third country to work, it doesn’t mean that that country has to be identical to the United States, or as similar to the United States as Canada is,” said Lee. “It can mean it is a place where someone could seek refuge from persecution in their home country.”

Gangs have broad access throughout Central America and are highly coordinated, making it nearly impossible for people to escape a death-threat from a gang simply by moving to another Central American country, says Tarin. 

“It’s not like you can run from the MS-13 in Guatemala, and then jump into El Salvador, and then go to Mexico, and be safe. Because all it takes is a phone call, and they will find you wherever you are,” he said.

“Violent crime, such as armed robbery and murder, is common,” The U.S. State Department’s current travel advisory for Guatemala reads: “Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics trafficking, is widespread. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.” 

“When we pray to God, we are demonstrating a form of unity in that we are all looking in the same direction for help, and acknowledging our own imperfections and our weakness.” — Utah Sen. Mike Lee

Lee noted that there may be exceptions to the rule included in the agreement for safety concerns.

“If someone could demonstrate that there’s some reason why Guatemala wouldn’t work for them, perhaps it wouldn’t apply in those cases,” he said.

Safety aside, experts say Guatemala lacks adequate resources to effectively process a high volume of asylum applications. The Migration Policy Institute described the Guatemalan immigration infrastructure as “embryonic,” according to The New York Times.

The specific details of the plan have not been disclosed, such as whether Guatemala would receive resources from the United States in order to develop an adequate infrastructure for processing asylum claims.

Unity through prayer

The primary purpose of Lee’s visit to Guatemala actually wasn’t immigration policy, but prayer. He was invited by Manuel Espina, the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, to deliver the keynote address at Guatemala’s National Prayer Breakfast.

In Spanish, he spoke to the attendees, which included the Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and General María Consuelo Porras about the power of prayer to unify people.

Lee says he hopes such unity will be a guiding principle that will bring the United States and Guatemala together to achieve policy goals -- like the safe-third country agreement -- to help stem the tide of America’s burgeoning immigration crisis. 

“When we pray to God, we are demonstrating a form of unity in that we are all looking in the same direction for help, and acknowledging our own imperfections and our weakness,” he said.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, pauses before a news conference as an 11th-hour Republican rescue mission to keep President Donald Trump from a Senate defeat on his signature issue of building barriers along the southwest border seems near collapse, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 13, 2019. Lee is chief sponsor of a bill limiting future emergency declarations by the president. His bill is supported by other Republican senators. | J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press