Deportation flights from the United States to El Salvador will continue normally, a Trump administration official announced on Thursday, despite the national quarantine declared by Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele a day before. “Deportation activities and flights will continue. However, we’re in negotiations with these countries about the coronavirus,” Mark Morgan, acting director of Customs and Border Patrol, said. Morgan didn’t expand on these “negotiations.” He made the announcement in a press call with journalists on March 12.
Morgan acknowledged the “threat of a disease outbreak in the southern border is very real” after saying that Honduras has two confirmed cases of Coronavirus and Mexico has 13. The possibility that flights with deportees may be a contagion point already caused alarm in Guatemala on March 10, when one of these flights arrived with 82 people from Miami. It was later confirmed that no passengers were infected with the disease. In the United States, there are more than 1,600 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 41 deaths.
During 2019, about 3,200 people were deported from the United States and Mexico to El Salvador every month. The Mexican Institute for Migration told El Faro that, for the moment, deportations are continuing. On March 10, Honduras suspended the flight of a group of deportees from Mexico, even though it’s still receiving deportees arriving via ground.
Morgan said all cases of people detained by immigration authorities in the United States go through the same evaluation process applied along all U.S. borders. “Border Patrol agents apply the same coronavirus test that we are doing in airports,” Morgan said. “If an individual shows signs or symptoms, medical authorities make sure they receive medical containment, attention and further tests.” A spokeswoman for the Salvadoran Immigration Department told El Faro that all people on deportation flights will be assigned the same protocol given to “every person who arrives.” Javier Argueta, a legal advisor to El Salvador’s president, told El Faro that the presidential decree says “every Salvadoran who comes into the country must be quarantined for 30 days. There are no excuses regarding nation of origin, condition, or port of entry.”
In a statement, commissioner Gabriel Mayorga, head of the Special Airport Unit, said all Salvadorans who return to the country after traveling have two options: “Either they are quarantined for 21 days and are housed in a shelter in Jiquilisco,” or they return to the country they arrived from.
The lack of clarity regarding this protocol, however, has caused confusion and chaos both at the airport and at the various points of entry on El Salvador’s borders. During an evening press conference on March 12, the government announced that it has prepared a shelter in Jiquilisco, Usulutan, with capacity for 400 people, and where there are already 100 people being held. By the end of Thursday, there were 350 Salvadoran in quarantine because of the coronavirus. President Bukele asked El Salvador’s defense minister to turn military barracks into a shelter for people in quarantine. The government also shared protocols for home quarantines. Press secretary Ernesto Sanabria did not respond to El Faro’s questions about the criteria required to send potentially-infected people to these different mandatory quarantine shelters.
Morgan: El Salvador Ready to Receive Refugees from the United States
The risk of coronavirus transmission from people coming from the United States isn’t limited only to deported Salvadorans. The Trump administration confirmed on March 12 that it plans on sending asylum seekers to El Salvador this very month, under the conditions set by an accord signed in September 2019. “Negotiations are going great, I have no doubt that El Salvador is ready and we’re predicting that the asylum agreement will be online literally any day now,” Mark Morgan told El Faro.
Four hours before president Bukele announced the national quarantine, BuzzFeed News reported about a secret meeting between Bukele, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, and other members of Trump’s government, during which they came up with the final details for the implementation of the asylum agreement. This deal would turn El Salvador into an alternative “safe country” for those who’ve applied to the United States.
According to Buzzfeed, the process will being this month, and the U.S. government hopes to send about 2000 asylum seekers to El Salvador this year. Between 2014 and 2018, only 73 people applied for asylum in El Salvador, according to statistics from the United Nations. In that same time span, the country only granted asylum to 28 people, according to a response from the ministry of foreign affairs. The office in charge of processing asylum claims is the Commission for the Determination of Refugees (CODER, in Spanish) and, as of October of 2019, had a total of nine employees. If the numbers cited by Buzzfeed are accurate, El Salvador would have to process 15 people a day to reach 2000 for the year. A source in the ministry of foreign affairs told El Faro on March 11 that there have not been significant changes to the office’s capacity.
“We want to make sure that El Salvador is ready, is capable, and is prepared with logistics, with everything that it takes to receive individuals,” Morgan said. “We must do it right… [that] all the plans are set in place so that we can do this in a humane and compassionate way,” he said.
Morgan praised the conditions in El Salvador’s Migrant Attention Center, which he visited this February, the place where deported Salvadorans are received back into the country. It was the first mention that this location would be used as part of the asylum agreement. “I saw firsthand not only were the facilities themselves, I think, ready – they looked good, clean, they had everything that they needed,” he said. He added that the areas designated for children he would like to replicate in the United States. He also praised El Salvador’s immigration officers. “It was really incredible to not only see the facilities that I think are ready and capable, but also to hear from the employees themselves that would be working in these reception centers.”
Neither the ministry of foreign affairs or the president’s press secretary responded to requests from El Faro about the imminent implementation of the asylum agreement. El Faro also asked if asylum seekers would be exempt from the prohibition of the entry of foreigners to the country, and received no response.
The mention of the asylum agreement also revived a debate over its legality. ARENA congress member Marcela Villatoro, told El Faro that the foreign ministry promised to send the agreement to congress for ratification. According to Villatoro, member of the foreign relations committee, that promise was made at a February 27 meeting at the foeign ministry. FMLN congress member Gustavo Acosta, also confirmed to El Faro that the executive branch has not made a formal request to congress to ratify the agreement and there are no proceedings under way. The asylum agreement establishes that both countries must determine the legal requirements necessary before implementation. Between November 2019 and this March, the United States has sent around 800 asylum seekers—mostly Hondurans and Salvadorans—to Guatemala, as part of a similar agreement.