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Trump Administration's New Asylum Policy Will Strain Guatemala, Critics Say


President Trump's new rules on asylum are causing anxiety and confusion among the people affected. This new rule went into effect on Tuesday. It means that most migrants cannot seek asylum at the U.S. border unless they have already asked for asylum in one of the countries that they crossed on their way to the United States. That means that many people fleeing Central America might end up having to ask for asylum in, say, Guatemala, which has to prepare to deal with tens of thousands of asylum-seekers. Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Jose Jonathan Escobar is one of the 400 refugees now working their way through Guatemala's asylum system. So is his mother, his two young daughters, three siblings and a niece. The whole family fled El Salvador after gang members threatened them, accusing them of being police informants.

JOSE JONATHAN ESCOBAR: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: "We pleaded with them not to kill us. But in the end they told us, you have three days to get out of your house," says Escobar. The gang had already killed three of his brothers, and just last year, the mother of his two girls.

ESCOBAR: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: "So we went to Mexico. I thought Guatemala was too close," he says. But the Mexico refugee offices were overwhelmed with migrants and the family was forced to sleep on the streets. Escobar says they were all scared so they headed back to Guatemala.


KAHN: At the Casa Migrante shelter in downtown Guatemala City, lunch is over and everyone is washing their dishes. Escobar says the family has been here since May. He's trying to get through the web of asylum paperwork so he can get a work permit and a real job. For now, he sells candies on the streets or washes cars.

MAURO VERZELETTI: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: Mauro Verzeletti, who runs the private shelter, says Guatemalan authorities are inefficient. The process is too bureaucratic and slow. And if President Trump's new rules withstand court challenges, Verzeletti says there's no plan to take on more refugees. His shelter only has 60 beds and is not equipped to house families.

VERZELETTI: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: "If more come then they're going to be living in poverty, extreme poverty, and they need to know that," he says. Guatemalans themselves have been fleeing the country in record numbers due to gang violence in the cities and poverty, drought and climate change in the countryside. Former foreign minister Edgar Armando Gutierrez says Guatemala is in no position to accept refugees from other Central American countries. He and two other former ministers this week won a court ruling barring President Jimmy Morales from making any migrant agreements with the U.S. President Trump has been pressuring Guatemala to become a safe third country and agree to accept asylum-seekers.

EDGAR ARMANDO GUTIERREZ: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: "Under what criteria is this a safe country? This is an unsafe country, for sure," Gutierrez says. However, with President Trump's new rule changes, there's no need for a Safe Third Country Agreement. Tens of thousands of Hondurans and Salvadorans could be forced to request asylum here.


KAHN: And that worries school principal Carlos Valdez, who's watching kids kick a ball around the outdoor plaza of his downtown school.

CARLOS VALDEZ: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: "Daily our kids deal with violence and the gangs threatening them," he says. Valdez says it's tough educating the kids all the way through high school, only for them to graduate and realize there aren't many opportunities in Guatemala. He says the government needs to take care of its citizens before taking on others. Salvadoran refugees Jose Jonathan Escobar says he isn't asking for much in Guatemala, just for his whole family to be safe. He says life would have been better if they could have gotten to the U.S. and applied for asylum, but it was too risky given President Trump's anti-migrant policies.

ESCOBAR: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: "I'm not looking to get rich. I just want my family to be OK. So for now we're good. We'll stay here," he says. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Guatemala City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.