U.S. acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said Thursday on a visit to Honduras that the two countries had finalized the steps on implementing an agreement that would send third country asylum seekers from the United States to Honduras.
Wolf said implementation would begin in the coming weeks.
"To build asylum capacity in Honduras smoothly and efficiently we plan to implement in phases, which will allow us to gradually roll out the program while working through operational considerations and questions on a small scale and assuring that the Honduran asylum system is not overwhelmed," Wolf said.
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Wolf commended Honduras for undertaking a "humanitarian responsibility."
The agreement "also serves a security purpose," Wolf said. "With access to protections in Honduras and throughout the region fewer individuals will make the dangerous journey to the United States."
Wolf's meetings with Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández come as the United States expands plans to send asylum seekers to Central America.
Beginning in July with Guatemala, the U.S. signed bilateral agreements with the governments of the so-called "Northern Triangle" countries — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — that would allow them to send asylum seekers from third countries.
In November, the U.S. began sending Hondurans and Salvadorans to Guatemala under the agreement. It argued that migrants seeking asylum should request it in the first safe country they enter.
This week the U.S. confirmed plans to begin sending Mexican asylum seekers to Guatemala as well. Outgoing Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales denied Wednesday his government had agreed to receive Mexican asylum seekers.
Of 94 foreign asylum seekers sent to Guatemala by the U.S. government, only six requested asylum there.
In exchange, the U.S. has agreed to invest in the region's economic development, an exchange Wolf highlighted Thursday.
"As you continue to do more to secure your borders, dismantle gangs and cartels and implement our asylum agreement, the United States government will continue to invest in and support the economic growth in Honduras," he said.
Critics have pointed out that these are three of the most dangerous countries in the world and have been the main sending countries responsible for hundreds of thousands of migrants arriving at the U.S. border in recent years.
Honduras alone last year received 109,185 of its citizens deported from the U.S., according to government data.
Itsmania Platero, a migrant advocate working closely with organizations in Mexico and the International Organization for Migration said she believed the U.S. would begin sending asylum seekers to Honduras by the end of January.
Ultimately, the measures are aimed at dissuading migrants from traveling to the U.S. border.
Graco Pérez, an immigration analyst, said Honduras is not prepared to receive foreign asylum seekers.
"The Hondurans who are sent back will look for a way to reinsert themselves in their territory, but in the case of the foreigners the country committed to provide them with health, security, education and employment so they can remain in the country in a decent way, but the government hasn’t made any announcement that it created those conditions," he said.