MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
President Trump says Guatemala has broken a deal for curbing illegal migration to the U.S., though it is not clear such a deal was ever agreed to. Trump says now he is looking to put a, quote, "ban" on the country that could include slapping tariffs on Guatemalan goods and taxing money sent back home by Guatemalan citizens working in the U.S. NPR's Carrie Kahn joins me now from Mexico City to talk about this. She was just in Guatemala.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi.
KELLY: The deal in question would have designated Guatemala as a safe third country, making Hondurans and Salvadorans apply for asylum there instead of here in the U.S. Do we know, Carrie, if there was such a deal?
KAHN: Well, the White House says there was one. Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales publicly never said there was one, but it wasn't Morales who backed out of a deal if there was one. He was headed to the U.S. last week to meet with President Trump. But opponents in Guatemala sued in their courts to stop Morales from signing off on such a deal. They did win an injunction from the Guatemalan high court on the grounds that the president can't unilaterally sign international accords. He must have approval from Congress. And that made any supposed deal moot anyway.
KELLY: So why is President Trump tweeting about this now? Do we know?
KAHN: It's unclear. We asked for clarification of the tweet and comments from the White House, but we didn't hear anything back. Secretary of State Pompeo did just get back to Washington after a trip through Latin America with stops in Mexico and El Salvador. He praised both of those countries' progress on curbing migration, so it appears that President Trump has now turned his attention and his threats to Guatemala.
KELLY: Well, let's talk about this safe third-country agreement. Could Guatemala become a safe third country? I mean, is it safe? Does it have the capacity to deal with the possibly many thousands of asylum-seekers that would come there?
KAHN: No, not on its own. Guatemala is one of the poorest in the hemisphere, and tens of thousands of Guatemalans themselves are fleeing the country due to the violence there and the extreme poverty. Could they handle tens of thousands of Hondurans and Salvadorans asking for asylum? You know, I was curious when I was there just last week. So I went to the tiny asylum office in the capital, and it is overwhelmed and under-resourced, as you would imagine. I asked Carla Ramirez (ph) the spokeswoman for the agency - I just asked her point-blank, can you deal with a surge in asylum applicants? And here's what she said.
CARLA RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Without hesitation, she said, "at this present time, no, we don't have the personnel." She said there's only eight of them working in the office. And she said they now work miracles trying to process the applications they have now. And that's about 430 pending cases. Many of those are from last year, and none have been finally resolved.
KELLY: Carrie, let me turn you to what President Trump is threatening to do, nonetheless. We mentioned he's threatening to impose tariffs on Guatemala and also to tax remittances, which would be the money sent home by Guatemalans who are living and working here in the U.S. Just describe what kind of impact that would have on the country.
KAHN: Well, first of all, it's unclear if it would come to that. With Mexico, just the threat of tariffs worked. The threats got them to jump into action and send new National Guard force to the southern and northern borders. And they began deporting tens of thousands of Central Americans. But if tariffs did go into place, it would be devastating to Guatemala's already fragile economy. The U.S. is its No. 1 trading partner. And then if remittances were taxed, too, that would be a big blow. Money sent home to Guatemala - get ready - was $9.5 billion last year. And that's nearly 12% of the country's economic activity, their GDP. So it would be cutting a lifeline from them.
KELLY: OK. Thank you, Carrie.
KAHN: You're welcome.
KELLY: NPR's Carrie Kahn reporting there from Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.