efe-epaGuatemala City

The United States hopes to persuade Honduras and El Salvador to join Guatemala in accepting the designation as a safe third country for asylum seekers, a senior US official said here Thursday.

"This is not something that the United States is asking to work on with Guatemala alone. We see this as a regional responsibility," Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said in Guatemala City. "We are now seeking discussions with Honduras and El Salvador about similar arrangements."

McAleenan was referring to the accord he and Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart signed last Friday at the White House as US President Donald Trump looked on.

The pact will require US-bound migrants from countries further south, such as Honduras and El Salvador to apply for asylum in Guatemala instead of continuing north across Mexico to the United States.

Migrants who press on to the US border and apply for asylum will be told to go back to Guatemala.

The past year has seen a stream of people fleeing poverty and violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras make their way across Mexico to the US border and file applications for asylum.

Late in 2018, Mexico agreed to allow some Central American migrants to remain on its soil as the US was processing their claims.

At the same time, the Mexican government has steadfastly refused to accept the safe third country designation, even in the face of tariff threats from Trump, though Mexico has deployed security forces on its southern border with Guatemala to reduce the flow of migrants.

Amid talk in Guatemala about the possibility of becoming a safe third country, the national ombudsman, Jordan Rodas, and several former foreign ministers asked the Constitutional Court to block any move in that direction and the judges issued an injunction on July 14 requiring President Jimmy Morales to get lawmakers' approval for such an agreement.

Soon afterward, Trump expressed his ire on Twitter.

"Guatemala, which has been forming Caravans and sending large numbers of people, some with criminal records, to the United States, has decided to break the deal they had with us on signing a necessary Safe Third Agreement. We were ready to go. Now we are looking at the BAN ... Tariffs, Remittance Fees, or all of the above. Guatemala has not been good," he said in successive tweets.

While it was not immediately clear what Trump meant by "ban," imposing tariffs on Guatemalan imports would run afoul of the 2006 Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement linking the US with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Levying fees or taxes on the remittances that Guatemalans working in the US send home to their families - $9.3 billion in 2018 - would have a devastating impact on the impoverished nation.

Following last Friday's signing ceremony at the White House, Morales said that the negotiations averted the imposition of "drastic sanctions" on Guatemala.

The deal includes a sweetener for Guatemala in the form of a US commitment to expand opportunities for Guatemalan farm workers to come to the United States on a seasonal basis under the H-2A visa program, a matter that McAleenan discussed during his visit to the Central American country. EFE