ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
For months now, some asylum-seekers at the Texas-Mexico border have been flown to Guatemala. Instead of being able to make their case in U.S. immigration court, they're told to ask for asylum in that country. Texas Public Radio's Reynaldo Leaños Jr. updates us on this Trump administration policy.
REYNALDO LEAÑOS JR, BYLINE: After traveling for weeks from Honduras, Alicia says she was floored when a U.S. border official raised the possibility that she and her teenage son would be sent to Guatemala.
ALICIA: (Through interpreter) I told him I had nothing to do with Guatemala and that I didn't know anyone in Guatemala. So what could I possibly do there?
LEAÑOS: Alicia says she never got a chance to fully explain why she was seeking protection. The interview only lasted five minutes, then they waited. She and her son spent another week in immigrant detention. It was extremely cold. She says the guards yelled at them, saying ugly things. And then one morning before sunrise, they were escorted onto a bus headed to a nearby airport.
ALICIA: (Through interpreter) We weren't sure if they were sending us to Guatemala, if they'd send us to Mexico or if they'd send us to El Salvador or Honduras. We had absolutely no clue.
LEAÑOS: Alicia is one of more than 800 migrants from Honduras and El Salvador who have been sent to Guatemala under an asylum cooperative agreement. The Trump administration says the agreement has helped drive down the number of migrants asking for asylum in the U.S. Here's Mark Morgan, acting commissioner for Customs and Border Protection, last week.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARK MORGAN: For the ninth straight month in a row, we've continued to make incredible progress along the Southwest border.
LEAÑOS: But critics say the U.S. is sending asylum-seekers back to dangerous places. Guatemala is grappling with gang violence and economic hardship. Alicia and her son left Honduras for the same reasons. Protesters gather every weekday outside the Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport. Joshua Rubin is with the group witness at the border.
JOSHUA RUBIN: These people fled a situation most likely that threatened their lives, and we're flying them right back into those places where their lives are in danger.
LEAÑOS: From beyond a chain-link fence, the protesters bear witness to shackled migrants being escorted onto planes. Diane Sonde is an activist from Brooklyn, N.Y. She says airport officials have parked vehicles in front of them to block their view and even sent police officers to move them.
DIANE SONDE: I asked them how they slept at night and how they would feel if this were their children and their families. They wouldn't even look us in the eye.
LEAÑOS: Once in the air, many of the migrants still don't know where they're going, says Charanya Krishnaswami with Amnesty International USA.
CHARANYA KRISHNASWAMI: Not even understanding that that's where you're going and only realizing it upon landing, and that complete lack of orientation, that complete lack of counselling, I think, exacerbates existing traumas and creates new ones.
LEAÑOS: Krishnaswami recently traveled to Guatemala to document how this agreement is playing out on the ground there. She says these disoriented migrants are given very little time to make a life-changing decision.
KRISHNASWAMI: They're told that they have 72 hours basically to decide whether they want to seek asylum in Guatemala, whether they want to accept voluntary return.
LEAÑOS: Only about 16 migrants have decided to apply for asylum in Guatemala, officials there are saying. The others are mostly unaccounted for. Some have gone home, while others like Alicia plan on trekking north again. Alicia asked that we not use her full name because she still hopes to make it to the U.S. one day to reunite with family.
ALICIA: (Through interpreter) I'm hiding in my country while I try to gather some money to try and return.
LEAÑOS: The U.S. wants Guatemala to accept even more migrants. The administration also hopes to start sending migrants back to Honduras under a similar agreement.
For NPR News, I'm Reynaldo Leaños Jr. in Brownsville, Texas.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.