WASHINGTON — The U.S. and El Salvador signed an agreement on Friday that could prevent some asylum seekers from seeking refuge in the U.S., but that overall is designed to curb illegal migration by increasing security and economic opportunity in El Salvador, according to acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and El Salvadoran Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill Tinoco.
The deal, which aims to recognize and build El Salvador’s asylum system, could allow the U.S. to send some asylum seekers back to El Salvador if they didn’t first claim asylum when passing through the country, an administration official said.
It comes amid an ongoing push by the Trump administration to limit access to asylum in the U.S., and as the U.S. has pushed for similar agreements with other countries in the region. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court cleared the way for the Trump administration’s rule that dramatically limits the ability of Central American migrants to claim asylum in the U.S.
McAleenan, who signed the agreement alongside Hill, said, “That is one potential use of the agreement that individuals crossing through El Salvador should be able to seek protections there and we want to be able to enforce the integrity of that process throughout the region,” but emphasized the core of the deal is “recognizing El Salvador’s development of their own asylum system.”
A copy of the agreement was not immediately made available. Neither McAleenan nor Hill provided details on timing for implementation.
Hill said in order to increase its asylum capabilities, El Salvador needs support from the U.S. to tackle gangs and violence, as well as “more investment,” including for border security, biometric collection and resettlement.
“We also need to talk and look at permanent solutions for El Salvadorans living in the United States,” she said, as well as an increase in legal migration opportunities. Hill said there are nearly 200,000 Salvadorans who live in the U.S., pay taxes and hold their hands over their hearts for both U.S. and El Salvador’s national anthems.
The Trump administration moved to end temporary protected status, or TPS, for El Salvador and other countries, but late last year, a federal judge in California granted a preliminary injunction stopping the government from terminating those protections. Since the injunction, protections for those countries have stayed in place.
McAleenan noted that apprehensions of Salvadorans crossing the border illegally have declined more than 62% since the new Salvadoran government took office more than 100 days ago.
Advocates already criticized the announcement, saying that El Salvador is one of the most dangerous countries in the western hemisphere.
“The agreement is a farce and makes a mockery of the life-saving system of asylum,” said Rev. John L. McCullough, president and CEO of Church World Service. “All people deserve a safe place to call home. President Trump must reverse this lethal decision before it goes into effect or the lives lost will be on his hands.”
In July, the U.S. signed an asylum agreement with Guatemala in the Oval Office that intended to commit Guatemala to extend asylum to migrants who seek it when they’re moving through the country. Migrants who still decide to journey to the U.S. to claim asylum could be returned to Guatemala, according to McAleenan at the time.
The agreement was expected to go into effect this summer, but in August Guatemala’s President-elect Alejandro Giammattei has said that the so-called “Safe Third Country” agreement with the United States would need the approval of both the U.S. and Guatemala congresses before being implemented.
In an interview with CNN en Español, Giammattei said that he would review the agreement during his five-month transition period to president, because he needs time to examine the commitment that outgoing President Jimmy Morales made with the Trump administration, whilst Morales was being threatened with U.S. tariffs.