Trump Officials Argued Over Asylum Deal With Guatemala. Now Both Countries Must Make It Work.

WASHINGTON — President Trump struck an agreement last week to require thousands of Central American migrants to seek asylum in Guatemala before coming to the United States. But the White House ceremony to hail what the president called a “landmark” measure — one that could transform the American immigration system — almost did not happen.

Just two hours earlier, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had criticized the agreement in a closed-door meeting with Mr. Trump and Kevin K. McAleenan, the acting secretary of homeland security, and several other aides, according to three senior administration officials briefed on a debate that ensued in the Oval Office.

Mr. Pompeo called the agreement flawed and a mistake, and he told Mr. Trump that the Guatemalan government did not have the ability to carry out its terms, said the three officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss delicate deliberations.

Mr. McAleenan pushed back, according to two of the officials. He argued that the accord, like similar ones in Europe, would stem the flow of immigrants, which has so infuriated Mr. Trump.

Mr. Pompeo lost the argument. After holding up the necessary — and usually perfunctory — State Department authority to approve the accord, Mr. Pompeo granted it in time for the modest ceremony where the Guatemalan interior minister, Enrique Degenhart, signed off on the deal with the United States.

“I would say that Guatemala is definitely clear on the responsibility that it has,” said Mr. Degenhart, representing President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala in an agreement that the country’s Constitutional Court has said must be approved by Guatemala’s congress. “We are clear that we have to make changes.”

Now it will be up to both governments to make it work.

Whether Guatemala is capable of handling a flood of migrants sent from the United States is central to the political and diplomatic concerns being expressed in both countries and will be the focus of legal challenges that are likely to be filed by immigration advocates in the United States.

In meetings this week with officials in Guatemala City, Guatemala’s capital, Mr. McAleenan said the United States would return a limited number of migrants to Guatemala as the country gets its own asylum system up to speed.

He predicted that many migrants would return to their home countries instead of seeking asylum there. United States officials said that $40 million in American aid for immigration facilities, transportation and care would help officials in Guatemala manage any refugee surge.

“The State Department and Secretary Pompeo have been a critical partner in supporting D.H.S.’s regional strategy on migration,” said Andrew Meehan, the acting assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Homeland Security. “It will be implemented in partnership with international organizations and nongovernmental partners with experience in building and maintaining capacity for those seeking protection in another country.”

But in an interview on Thursday, one Guatemalan congressman described his country as completely unprepared to accept thousands of migrants from El Salvador and Honduras.

“We can’t do it. We just can’t do it,” said the legislator, Paul Briere, who was the chairman of the Guatemalan immigration committee from 2013 to 2017.

“We’re not prepared for that agreement,” Mr. Briere said. “We don’t have the resources; we don’t have the infrastructure. We can’t.”

Under the so-called safe-third country agreement, migrants who travel through Guatemala to the southwestern border to seek asylum will be denied protections in the United States. Unless they can prove a fear of persecution or torture in Guatemala, they will be given the option to return to their home countries or to Guatemala, where they could seek refuge.

The number of Central American migrants seeking asylum in the United States has surged over the past year as tens of thousands of families flee gang violence, extreme poverty and corruption in their home countries. The number of migrants taken into custody at the southwestern border peaked at 144,200 in May.

Many of the migrants sent to Guatemala would be processed by the Guatemalan Migration Institute — situated in a small office building in the capital, and on the same block as three strip clubs — where the staff of eight processed 262 requests for refuge last year.

Only 20 were approved, and 234 are still pending, said Alejandra Mena, a spokeswoman for the institute. The rest were either rejected or abandoned.

Officials at the White House and the Department of Homeland Security are betting that the agreement with Guatemala will have a big deterrent effect by persuading families in El Salvador and Honduras not to make the long, dangerous journey to the United States in the first place.

“President Trump made a great international deal with Guatemala that protects the rights of legitimate asylum seekers, strengthens regional cooperation and improves safety for all migrants,” said Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman. “Democrats’ refusal to address this humanitarian crisis continues to leave our borders open and American communities unsafe.”

State Department officials worked with Mr. McAleenan during the past several months to negotiate the agreement, traveling together several times to Guatemala. Diplomats were also with Mr. McAleenan this week as he discussed the agreement with Guatemalan officials.

Morgan Ortagus, Mr. Pompeo’s spokeswoman, told The New York Times that the State Department said it “fully supports the safe-third agreement between the United States and Guatemala and all of the administration’s efforts to stop the humanitarian crisis we face at our southern border.”

But privately, some American diplomats question the agreement’s basic assumption — that Guatemala is capable of accepting what could eventually be thousands of asylum seekers each month. Officials also described irritation within the State Department over what is viewed as the Department of Homeland Security’s meddling in a diplomatic mission with Guatemala.

Before the agreement can take effect, the Trump administration must certify that Guatemala is able to give migrants access to a “full and fair” asylum system, or similar protection.

“We do not believe there can be a plausible finding that Guatemala will provide a safe, fair and full asylum procedure,” said Lee Gelernt, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union.

That concern is shared by Guatemalan officials who deal directly with refugees arriving in the country.

Ms. Mena, of the Guatemalan Migration Institute, said few details have been provided for putting the agreement into action. One staff member said that with current resources, the institute would be overwhelmed by the incoming asylum seekers.

“We don’t have the procedures,” said Mr. Briere, the legislator. “We’re not going to have it for 25,000 people or 50,000 people. We don’t even take care of 300 people.”

Operators of shelters in Guatemala are also worried about the possible arrival of thousands of migrants.

Mauro Verzeletti, the director of Casa del Migrante in Guatemala City, said his shelter has housed more than 8,000 migrants this year. It has the capacity to hold only 50 migrants at any time; only 13 migrants in the shelter on Thursday were pursuing refuge in the country. The rest intended to move on.

“The Casa del Migrante shelter is not designed for refugee seekers in the country,” Mr. Verzeletti said. “It is designed for people going through the country.”

“Guatemala does not have the capability to receive refugee seekers,” he said. “That’s why analysts are saying this is going to become a concentration camp.”

Before the agreement can be enacted, the Trump administration must also certify that the “life or freedom” of migrants who are sent to Guatemala will not be threatened on the basis of their races, religions, nationalities, political opinions or memberships in particular social groups.

Officials with the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice are trying to speed up that certification. The State Department’s country condition reports on Guatemala warn about rampant gang activity and say that murder is common in the country, which has a police force that is often ineffective at best. But other Trump administration officials are expected to argue that safe places remain in some areas.

Critics, including immigration-rights activists, insist that Guatemala will never meet American legal definitions of a safe place.

“Guatemala cannot even provide protection to its own citizens,” said Eleanor Acer, the senior director for refugee protection at Human Rights First. “It’s ridiculous to suggest that Guatemala can also provide protection to large number of migrants from other countries.”