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As Guatemalan Forces Beat Back Migrant Caravan, Biden Urged to Reverse Trump Policies of 'Cruelty and Coercion'

"The answer is not to continue doing more of the same but to envision a new direction that respects the political and economic self-determination and dignity of our Central American neighbors."

Thousands of migrants, mostly from Honduras, are blocked from traveling further on a road by security forces in Vado Hondo, Guatemala on January 17, 2021. (Photo: Luis Vargas/Andalou Agency via Getty Images)

Thousands of Central American migrants attempting to travel in a caravan to Mexico and the United States face off against security forces in Vado Hondo, Guatemala on January 17, 2021. (Photo: Luis Vargas/Andalou Agency via Getty Images) 

As nearly 2,000 mostly Honduran migrants traveling through Guatemala toward Mexico and the United States were violently pushed back toward the border of their homeland on Monday, a new report released by Senate Democrats called on the incoming Biden administration to rescind Trump-era agreements with three Central American countries that have made asylum-seekers fleeing poverty and dangerous conditions much less safe. 

"For far too long, the United States has treated Central America as its 'backyard,' exerting an inappropriate level of interference in the political and economic affairs of the region."
—Civil society groups, to President-elect Joe Biden

Reuters reports Guatemalan security forces on Monday cleared hundreds of people from a road near the village of Vado Hondo, Chiquimula department, which borders both Honduras and El Salvador.

After authorities blocked a migrant caravan which reportedly contained some 8,000 people when it departed from Honduras last week, around 2,000 migrants—including many families with young children—camped out on the road with little food or water over the weekend. A separate group of around 300 Salvadorans caught up with the caravan by Monday. 

Al Jazeera reports that after attempting to negotiate with members of the caravan and giving two warnings, military and police in riot gear aggressively advanced on the crowd as many of the migrants sang the Honduran national anthem. The security forces pushed and beat their way through the crowd, injuring men and women alike as they dispersed the migrants. 

"This isn't a war," Andres Gomez, a Guatemalan in the caravan, told Reuters. "It's a caravan with women and children. The soldiers have no right to beat anyone. There are women who've been beaten." 

Migrants in the caravan who spoke to Al Jazeera said they were fleeing the destruction caused by a pair of recent Category 4 hurricanes, as well as chronic unemployment and violence at home. Kayla, a 16-year-old transgender girl hoping to make it to Mexico, said she was "so scared" during the clearing operation, and that she feared for her life in her homeland. 

"In Honduras, people threaten to kill us," she said of trans people.

The latest migrant caravan set out toward the U.S. just days before President-elect Joe Biden—who is expected to reverse some of President Donald Trump's most controversial and harmful immigration policies—takes office.

Senate Democrats took aim at one of those policies, the unilateral third-country deals—called asylum cooperative agreements (ACAs)—under which three Central American nations agree to take in migrants denied entry into the United States, in a report published Monday urging Biden to immediately terminate the ACAs. 

The report (pdf)—entitled Cruelty, Coercion, and Legal Contortions: The Trump Administration's Unsafe Asylum Cooperative Agreements with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—was produced by the office of incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). Among its key findings:

  • Since implementation of the first ACA began over one year ago, not one of the 945 asylum-seekers transferred from the United States to Guatemala has been granted asylum;
  • The ACAs appear to violate both U.S. law and the United States' international obligations by sending refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened;
  • Former Attorney General William Barr and former U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan determined that Guatemala provides "full and fair" access to asylum based on partial truths and ignored State Department concerns;
  • Asylum seekers transferred from the United States to Guatemala under the ACA were subjected to degrading treatment and effectively coerced to return to Honduras or El Salvador where many feared persecution and harm;
  • The White House and DHS used coercive tactics to compel the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to sign the ACAs; and
  • The Trump administration continues to maintain secrecy and obstruct congressional oversight of the negotiations and implementation of the ACAs.

"As we focus on finishing our decades-long fight for a fair and humane immigration system, the incoming administration must immediately cancel these disastrous agreements to deliver on the president-elect's promise to reverse the degrading treatment of people fleeing persecution and violence," said Menendez, who has openly supported an attempted U.S.-backed coup in Venezuela and is implicated in backing actual coup regimes in Bolivia and Honduras with bipartisan support in Washington, D.C.

The Senate report follows a Friday letter to Biden from a broad group of over 70 human rights-centered organizations urging the incoming president to follow through on his promises to reverse Trump's harmful policies and actions, and to eschew the imperialism that has characterized U.S. relations with Central American nations for much of the past two centuries.

"We've been heartened to hear that you are committed to working to improve the quality of life of the peoples of Central America and that your administration plans to turn the page on the bullying and demonization of Central Americans that has taken place under President Trump," the rights groups wrote. "We support and will hold you to your commitment to reverse the Trump administration's draconian immigration policies and respect the human rights of migrants." 

"For far too long, the United States has treated Central America as its 'backyard,' exerting an inappropriate level of interference in the political and economic affairs of the region," the letter continues. "Approaching U.S. relations in the region as a partnership, as you promise to do, is a welcome change. But achieving a real partnership will require a fundamentally different approach to U.S. foreign policy that we hope you will consider."

"Approaching U.S. relations in the region as a partnership, as you promise to do, is a welcome change. But achieving a real partnership will require a fundamentally different approach to U.S. foreign policy that we hope you will consider."
—Civil society groups, to President-elect Joe Biden

The letter notes that some of the more egregious human rights violations perpetrated by the Trump administration actually began during the Obama administration or earlier, including family separation and Plan Frontera Sud, under which Mexican security forces stopped—often violently—Central American migrants from entering Mexico at its southern border. 

The letter's signatories called on the Biden administration to end all forms of family separation, to immediately rescind the "Remain in Mexico" and ACA policies, terminate border militarization policies, end contracts with private immigration prisons, restore migrants' temporary protected status, and support "appropriate use" of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's public health powers. 

"Under your leadership, the United States has the opportunity to write a new chapter in our hemispheric relations, but doing so requires taking a hard look at U.S. policies that have contributed to the current reality in which millions face a daily struggle for survival," the letter advises Biden. "The answer is not to continue doing more of the same but to envision a new direction that respects the political and economic self-determination and dignity of our Central American neighbors."

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