Guatemala suspends US flights of deportees, asylum seekers

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A man wearing a protective mask reads newspaper in Guatemala City, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei effectively closed off Guatemala late Monday to all non-Guatemalans or permanent residents and ordered a suspension of all non-essential activities. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Guatemala announced Tuesday that it was suspending incoming flights carrying immigrants and asylum seekers sent by the United States, citing concerns over the global coronavirus pandemic.

The measure covered two flights of Guatemalan deportees scheduled for the day, as well as indefinitely suspending flights carrying people from other Central American nations who were being sent to Guatemala under an asylum cooperation agreement with the United States that is part of Washington’s broader crackdown on immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Starting today all flights of returnees under the (agreement with Washington) are suspended for the duration of the state of calamity,” Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo said.

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In the case of deported Guatemalans, Brolo said it was a “precautionary measure” until health protocols can be put in place to transport people to their hometowns, since public transportation has been shut down.

Firefighters wearing protective suites attend a press briefing by the local contingency team against coronavirus at the town hall in Guatemala City, Monday, March 16, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

The ministry said U.S. authorities are increasing health checks of people in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody “to guarantee that no returnee is sent with symptoms related to COVID-19 or coronavirus,” and Brolo said deportees would undergo four or five such examinations.

Guatemala, which has reported one fatality from the new coronavirus and five other confirmed cases, has closed its borders to foreigners, though the constitution protects Guatemalans’ right of entry.

Most people who come down with the disease have relatively mild symptoms, but it can be deadly for some, especially the elderly and those with underlying health problems. Most people infected with the virus recover in a matter of weeks.

Tens of thousands of people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years seeking asylum or fleeing poverty.

ICE typically operates several flights weekly returning Guatemalans who are being deported.

Passengers sit on a bus at the main bus station in Guatemala City, Friday, March 13, 2020. Authorities in Guatemala, Uruguay and Venezuela confirmed their first cases of the new coronavirus on Friday, while Argentina announced its second death linked to the global pandemic, and some countries such as El Salvador and Ecuador reinforced measures to contain the spread of the virus. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

The Trump administration has in recent months has flown 939 migrants from El Salvador and Honduras to Guatemala as well, through the asylum cooperative agreement signed in July. Under the accord, the U.S. can require Salvadorans and Hondurans who cross its southern border to seek asylum in Guatemala instead. The vast majority have chosen to return to their home countries rather than request refuge in Guatemala, which is also has high numbers of would-be immigrants and asylum seekers fleeing the country.

The Trump administration says flying people from other countries to Guatemala is critical to discouraging people from leaving the region and trying to enter the U.S. The American Civil Liberties Union and other American civil rights groups have sued to stop the agreement and similar deals the U.S. has reached with El Salvador and Honduras.

Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant contributed from Houston.

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