Refugees International Urges Top State Department Lawyer to Pull Out of Guatemala ‘Safe Third Country’ Talks

In an unusual letter to the State Department’s top acting lawyer, Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, has urged officials in the Department’s office of the legal adviser to “cease their involvement in efforts to secure” a safe third country agreement with the government of Guatemala. If completed, the agreement would permit U.S. border officials to reject asylum seekers from El Salvador and Honduras and instead force them into Guatemala, where their claims would presumably be considered.

Schwartz, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, addressed his letter to Acting Legal Adviser Marik String, current head of the office. The letter asserts that the proposed agreement would be in violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which requires that a safe third country provide asylum seekers with “access to a full and fair procedure for determining a claim to asylum or equivalent temporary protection.” Schwartz’s letter further notes that, for those asylum seekers sent to Guatemala, the agreement would also put them at risk of persecution, a further violation of U.S. law.

The letter points out that these factors underscore “an ethical obligation to withdraw the involvement of the office of the legal adviser in this exercise,” and urges the acting legal adviser “to inform the Secretary of State that no reasonable interpretation of U.S. law would at this point permit completion of a safe third country agreement with Guatemala.”  

“Especially in situations involving matters of life and death, government officials shouldn’t just follow orders,” Schwartz said. “Short of resignation in protest, they have many ways to push back—and this letter urges the State Department office of the legal adviser to do just that.”