Michelle Hackman, Wall Street Journal, October 13, 2020
U.S. border agents working in Guatemala detained Honduran migrants intending to make their way to the U.S. border and returned them to Honduras in an unauthorized operation last January, a review by Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee found.
The agents were stationed in Guatemala, along with other countries across Latin America, to help train local police in counter narcotics and other efforts. They are strictly prohibited by the State Department, which provides their funding and oversees their efforts, from conducting direct enforcement operations in countries abroad.
Still, last January, alarm bells went off in Washington when a group of Honduran migrants from the northern city of San Pedro Sula began crossing the Honduras-Guatemala border, with hopes of reaching the U.S. and asking for asylum. U.S. Customs and Border Protection rented three buses and set off to halt the caravan’s progress, according to the report.
Together with Guatemalan border authorities, U.S. agents halted the migrants and loaded them onto buses, which then returned them to the border with Honduras, the review states.
The episode is the first in which U.S. agents were known to be involved in the physical deportation of migrants from a foreign country. The Senate report, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and released later Tuesday, found that Customs and Border Protection officials violated limits imposed on them by the U.S. that prohibit enforcement operations abroad, and didn’t take precautions to ensure that the operation was safe or legal.
The government also couldn’t tell the Senate whether the migrants it helped send back to Honduras had been given a chance to claim asylum, either in the U.S. or Guatemala. Returning potential refugees back to danger violates a principle of international law known as non-refoulement, and it is prohibited both under U.S. law and international treaties the U.S. is party to.
Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, together known as the Northern Triangle of Central America, have been the largest source of asylum-seeking migrants in the past half decade, driven by families and unaccompanied children fleeing poverty, gang violence and government corruption.
Though the State Department typically leads diplomatic relationships with governments abroad, Homeland Security has become the primary point of contact between the U.S. and Central America, say former officials and analysts.
Even under the Obama administration, CBP agents were stationed across Central American nations to help those countries build up their own border forces—efforts that have accelerated under President Trump.