TRAGESSER: Seeking Asylum In Guatemala Is Completely Appropriate

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Even before the ink could dry on a recent “safe third country” asylum agreement signed between the United States and Guatemala, the mainstream media and open borders advocates went into a frenzy, with many claiming that the Northern Triangle country is not suitable for migrants seeking asylum. One went so far as to call the proposal “jaw-droppingly insane.”

What is insane is the reluctance of many to recognize the gains – economic, political, and social– that have taken place in Guatemala over the last decade that enable the country to offer safe haven to those who are genuinely fleeing persecution at the hands of their government.

The new “safe third country” agreement between the United States and Guatemala requires migrants passing through Guatemala to apply for asylum there before applying for asylum in the United States. Because of a recent surge in meritless asylum claims presented at the U.S. southern border, immigration officials initiated this pact to prioritize and protect bona fide asylum-seekers while discouraging those who are attempting to exploit loopholes in U.S. asylum laws as a means to gaining a better-paying job.

Within the last decade, Guatemala has vastly improved its country’s conditions. This makes it a suitable destination for migrants seeking refuge. In fact, Guatemala’s Minister of Governance Enrique Degenhart, the official who signed the “safe third country” agreement with President Trump earlier this month, confirmed that his country has seen immense economic and security progress in recent years.

Degenhart noted that the Guatemalan economy has soared over the last decade. Between 2007 and 2017, their annual GDP more than doubled, increasing wealth from $34 billion to $76 billion. Meanwhile, the country’s unemployment rate fell from 4.13 percent in 2011 to 2.73 percent in 2018.

Degenhart is also right when it comes to Guatemala’s progress in improving its security. In fact, between 2011 and 2017, the Guatemalan homicide rate fell from 38.6 per 100,000 individuals to 19.0 per 100,000 individuals. That means the nation’s homicide rate is below that of some U.S. cities, such as St. Louis, New Orleans, Detroit, and yes, Elijah Cummings’ Baltimore.

As a Guatemalan American who has journeyed throughout the country many times with family and friends who still reside there, I can attest to the fact that Guatemala is rapidly evolving from a developing nation, with all of the attendant problems, to one with an economy in transition and a stable political climate. But if the economic and security situation in Guatemala is not dire, why are Central American migrants bypassing the country and not seeking asylum there? The answer is simple: higher wages in the United States.

Most Central Americans who transit through Guatemala on their way to the United States are searching for better economic opportunities. However, seeking better economic opportunities does not qualify someone for asylum in the United States, which may explain why immigration courts approve claims for roughly only 11 percent of asylum seekers.

It’s also worth noting that a recent poll found that 91.1 percent of Guatemalans who migrate elsewhere are doing so in search of higher wages. Those Guatemalan migrants are not fleeing persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Accordingly, there is no reason to believe that anyone seeking asylum in Guatemala would be subject to such persecution at the hands of the Guatemalan government.

The humanitarian and public safety crisis at the border created by those wishing to exploit our asylum laws is undeniable. Asylum applications have soared, increasing from 42,836 in FY 2008 to 162,060 in FY 2018 — a 278 percent surge. It makes sense to keep them from making a perilous journey to seek asylum for which they will not qualify. Some 30 percent of women report being sexually assaulted and 70 percent of all migrants report facing violence during this trek.

In the long run, this new agreement will save lives – particularly of young children and women who travel thousands of miles by foot to reach the U.S. border. A shorter trek from their countries to Guatemala means fewer would-be asylum seekers unnecessarily succumbing to violence or illness on the trip to the United States.

Clearly, seeking safe haven in Guatemala isn’t as economically lucrative as seeking safe haven in the U.S. But asylum isn’t about seeking the best economy, it’s about seeking refuge from a government that’s persecuting you. And on that front, Guatemala fits the bill.

Matthew Tragesser is a Guatemalan American who serves as spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a nonprofit group that advocates for legal immigration.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.