The United States on Friday signed an agreement that paves the way for the U.S. to send many asylum-seekers to one of the world's most violent countries, El Salvador.
But both countries must first take necessary legal actions and implement major border security and asylum procedures before it would go into effect, according to a draft copy of the agreement obtained by The Associated Press.
The deal is the latest ambitious step taken by the Trump administration to lean on other nations — many of them notoriously violent — to take in immigrants to stop the flow of migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border.
U.S. immigration officials also are forcing more than 42,000 people to remain in Mexico as their cases play out and have changed policy to deny asylum to anyone who transited through a third country en route to the southern border of the U.S.
Curbing immigration is a signature political issue for Trump and one that thrills his supporters. But the U.S. is also managing a crush of migrants at the border that has strained the system.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and El Salvador's foreign minister, Alexandra Hill Tinoco, signed the "cooperative asylum agreement" in a live-streamed press conference on Friday.
They lauded the two countries for working together to stem migration to the U.S. but provided few details about the agreement.
Condemnation from migrant and refugee advocates was swift.
"Where will they declare a haven for asylum seekers next? Syria? North Korea? This is cynical and absurd. El Salvador is in no way safe for asylum seekers," said Refugees International President Eric Schwartz.
Meghan Lopez, country director for El Salvador at the International Rescue Committee, said the U.S. government is "attempting once more to turn its back on extremely vulnerable people."
"El Salvador is not safe for many of its own nationals and is struggling to meet their needs, which is why many seek asylum in the United States. It is unrealistic to expect El Salvador to be able to offer protection to asylum-seekers fleeing conditions comparable to those in El Salvador."
El Salvadorans are excluded from the agreement, according to the draft.
McAleenan, who called the agreement "a big step forward," and Hill Tinoco discussed U.S. assistance in making El Salvador a safer and more prosperous place for its citizens. Hill Tinoco talked about ending gang violence.
"I mean, those individuals threaten people, those individuals kill people, those individuals request for the poorest and most vulnerable population to pay just to cross the street," she said, adding that her country needs more investment from the U.S. and other nations.
The agreement, first reported by The Associated Press, could lead to migrants from third countries obtaining refuge in El Salvador if they pass through that country on their way to the U.S., Hill Tinoco said in an interview with the AP.
But she said most migrants who travel north don't pass through El Salvador, which is on the western edge of Central America and is much smaller geographically than its neighbor to the east, Honduras.
She told The AP the details would need to be hammered out, including border security, asylum procedures and potential aid from the U.S. She said the agreement is a starting point, and they expected negotiations on possible aid to continue.
"It has to be a real partnership," she said, which means the U.S. would have to give something.
The country's new president, Nayib Bukele, has made clear he wishes to be an ally to the U.S., Hill Tinoco said.
"It is a complete 180 in terms of foreign policy," she said.
McAleenan said the agreement advanced El Salvador's commitment to developing an asylum framework, with help from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
"This will build on the good work we have accomplished already with El Salvador's neighbor, Guatemala, in building protection capacity to try to further our efforts to provide opportunities to seek protection for political, racial, religious or social group persecution as close as possible to the origin of individuals that need it," he said.
Guatemala officials are still working on how to implement a "safe third country" agreement with the U.S. signed earlier this summer.
The arrangement with El Salvador was not described as a safe third country agreement, under which nations agree that their respective countries are safe enough and have robust enough asylum systems, so that if migrants transit through one of the countries they must remain there instead of moving on to another country.
The U.S. officially has only one such agreement in place, with Canada.
The Trump administration this year threatened to withhold all federal assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras unless they did more to end the migrant crisis.
The move was met by stiff resistance in Congress as experts had said the cuts would likely only exacerbate the number of migrants seeking to make the hazardous journey to the U.S. because of a further lack of resources.
On Thursday, the U.S. announced a plan to promote economic development in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — as long as fewer migrants end up at the U.S. border.
Mauricio Claver-Clarone, national security adviser in charge of Latin America, said U.S. investment would occur soon but it was contingent on a continued reduction in the number of migrants. He didn't specify how much Washington plans to give to promote economic growth in those countries.
In June, the State Department announced that the Trump administration was reversing some of the cuts but would not approve future aid to those nations. The State Department said then that some $370 million from the 2018 budget will not be spent and instead will be moved to other projects.
El Salvador is plagued by gangs and is among the world's deadliest countries, with one of the highest homicide rates on the globe.
According to a 2018 State Department report, human rights issues included allegations of "unlawful killings of suspected gang members and others by security forces; forced disappearances by military personnel; torture by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of government respect for judicial independence."
Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat, Michael Balsamo, Luis Alonzo Lugo and Zeke Miller contributed to this report.