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What A 'Safe Third Country Agreement' Between The U.S. And Mexico Would Entail


Let's tease out this idea of a safe third country agreement. The EU has one with Turkey. The U.S. has one with Canada. With Mexico, as we just heard there, there is a lot of detail we don't know yet. But in theory, it would mean that migrants from Central America would have to ask for asylum in the first country that they arrive in. So for Guatemalans, that means Mexico. For migrants from Honduras and El Salvador, that might mean Guatemala. But who decides whether a country is, quote, "safe." Well, I put that question to an expert, Sarah Pierce, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. She says the answer is complicated.

SARAH PIERCE: So there's no single body that's obligated with making that decision. There's not much of an international infrastructure to complain one country is safe when they aren't actually safe. We do have an International Court of Justice. But I'm not sure what country would be within the rights to counter a U.S.-Mexico agreement on this. And I'm not sure what country would.

KELLY: So if we just look at a map of how this might play out for Mexico and then Central America, we mentioned Guatemalans would need to apply for asylum in Mexico. We asked Jorge Castaneda - he's a former foreign minister of Mexico - about that prospect on our air this morning. Here's what he had to say.


JORGE CASTANEDA: Certainly it's not a safe place for Mexicans so I don't see why it would be a safe place for Guatemalans.

KELLY: So he's saying Mexico isn't a safe place for Mexicans, why would it be safe for Guatemalans? What do you think of that, Sarah Pierce?

PIERCE: I think it's a legitimate point. Mexico is seeing an unprecedented level of violence right now. Last year, 2018, was one of their highest on record for homicides. And so far in 2019, it's up by 10%. So Mexico is certainly going through this very tumultuous period. It's hard to say that it's a really safe place for migrants. And we have anecdotal examples of that, too. There's a lawsuit going on right now related to a U.S. policy that is returning asylum-seekers to Mexico while they wait for their asylum applications that are pending in the United States, and many of those migrants have been kidnapped or subject to other sorts of violence while they're waiting in Mexico. So we have plenty of examples showing that Mexico is not a safe place for these migrants that would certainly call this agreement into question.

KELLY: So a lot of details still to be worked out here. I suppose the central question is would such a plan actually deter people from Central America from heading to the U.S. border and seeking asylum here in the U.S.? In your view, would it?

PIERCE: I definitely think it would. The first year that the agreement was signed between the U.S. and Canada, Canada saw a 50% drop in asylum claims. And just knowing that the agreement was in place deterred a lot of people from applying in Canada. And certainly, under the agreement, any asylum-seekers that we would have at the southern border, we could quickly deport them, really, back to Mexico if they hadn't applied for asylum there. That's not to say that this would be a good thing. Certainly, it would just really move the migration crisis that we're currently seeing from the U.S. border with Mexico down further south, just relocating this crisis onto countries that aren't as well-resourced as the United States to handle it.

KELLY: So you're arguing that this might improve the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, but it would not improve the overall migrant crisis that is causing people to leave their homes in Central America?

PIERCE: Absolutely.

KELLY: Although, from the Trump administration's point of view, does that count as a win?

PIERCE: Yeah. I think it does. I think that the president would be really happy with an agreement like this, even if we were seeing major human rights issues in these southern countries. He just wants to see the problem off his doorstep.

KELLY: Sarah Pierce of the Migration Policy Institute, thanks so much for your time.

PIERCE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.