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El Salvador Ramps Up Security To Stop Migrants


The Trump administration signed migration agreements with El Salvador and Honduras. The deals mean thousands of asylum seekers who reach the southern border of the U.S. would automatically be sent back to Central America. Here's Emily Green from the El Salvador-Guatemala border, where El Salvador is ramping up security to stop migrants reaching the United States.

EMILY GREEN, BYLINE: Along the dusty border, three trucks drive slowly through back roads. The vehicles are staffed with Salvadoran immigration officials, along with heavily armed soldiers and police officers, all looking for migrants trying to leave the country.

Immigration agent Mateo Molina drives one of the cars.

MATEO MOLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

GREEN: He says things are different now. The Salvadoran government has given them more support and resources. Earlier this month, El Salvador began deploying more than a thousand police officers, soldiers and immigration agents to its border. But today, there are no smugglers to be found. The convoy stops a lone driver.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

GREEN: A half a dozen soldiers and police officers step out of the convoy as they check to make sure his papers are in order.

MOLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

GREEN: Molina says immigration agents used to have a passive role, that they could ask for documents only if the police intervened. Now they have the power to stop people on their own. Just a year ago, Trump referred to El Salvador in derogatory terms, but that seems to have been forgiven all around. El Salvador's new president, Nayib Bukele, praised the migration deal in a press conference with Trump.


PRESIDENT NAYIB BUKELE: For us, the United States is not only a partner and an ally, but also a friend. And we're going to show that friendship. That's one of the reasons we signed the agreement - because we want to show the friendship to our most important ally, which is the United States.

GREEN: The pact would require El Salvador to accept asylum seekers turned back at the U.S. border, but it remains unclear what El Salvador is getting in return. It doesn't offer more legal visas for Salvadorans to reach the U.S., according to a copy of the agreement published by the Salvadoran outlet El Faro, nor does it offer permanent legal status to some 200,000 Salvadorans already living in the U.S.

Abel Nunez, director of the migrant advocacy organization Carecen, says Trump bullied El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras into signing unfavorable migration deals.

ABEL NUNEZ: Trump understands that those nations depend on the financial aid, on the military aid to ensure the functioning of all three nations. And so when he needs something from them, he will strong-arm them.

GREEN: He says the motivation behind each country to sign the deal is somewhat different. In El Salvador, President Bukele is trying to fashion himself as a different kind of politician, whereas in Honduras, the president has been identified as a coconspirator in a major U.S. drug trafficking case. Guatemala's president is also facing the prospect of criminal charges when he leaves office. Cutting a deal with Trump gives them a powerful ally in the White House, Nunez says.

NUNEZ: All three presidents have their reasons for doing it, but at the end, they all capitulated.

GREEN: A looming question is how Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras will process and protect thousands of asylum seekers. Guatemala has just four people reviewing asylum cases. El Salvador reportedly has just one. And Honduras has seen 200,000 of its own citizens flee the country in the last year, raising questions of how it can be considered a safe haven.

RACHEL SCHMIDTKE: There's just not any institutional capacity or any sort of asylum system really in place for these people to access.

GREEN: Rachel Schmidtke is a migration expert at the Wilson Center, a D.C. think tank. She says these deals contribute to the most sweeping change to U.S. asylum policy in decades. And for Trump, that's a campaign promise fulfilled. He may still not have his border wall, but these agreements are arguably more effective, closing the American asylum system to thousands of migrants.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Green in El Salvador. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Green