Thomas Cartwright ran along a chain link fence outside the runway at the Brownsville South Padre International Airport. He was trying to catch a glimpse of buses loading migrants onto a plane.
Cartwright says he and other protestors are there to show border officials “that there are watchers, so that nothing is done in the darkness.”
But as Cartwright leaned against the fence to record and take photos, an empty white airport shuttle pulled up and parked in front of him, obscuring his view of the plane. It's not the first time this has happened.
“One day, I think I counted roughly 10 large vehicles, fuel trucks, tugs, that they place strategically around to block out view,” Cartwright said.
Deportation flights have been going on for a while now out of Brownsville, but migrants have also started being sent from the border city to Guatemala under a new policy.
The Trump administration announced last July that Guatemala would sign what it calls a safe third country agreement. The agreement, called the Guatemalan Asylum Cooperative Agreement, requires some asylum seekers from Honduras and El Salvador to either seek asylum in Guatemala or return to their home countries.
The agreement went into effect in November, beginning with the removal of migrants in El Paso, and has expanded to the Rio Grande Valley.
According to the Guatemalan Institute for Migration, an office of the Guatemalan government, 634 asylum seekers, most of them women and children, have been sent to Guatemala so far under the new policy.
Between Feb. 1 and Feb. 13, 98 asylum seekers were flown to Guatemala City from Brownsville, approximately half of them Salvadoran and the remainder Honduran.
The agreement with Guatemala represents a departure from previous U.S. policy, which allowed migrants seeking asylum from violence or persecution in their home countries to remain in the U.S. while a judge hears their case.
In addition to the third country rule, the Trump administration has strictly enforced its Remain in Mexico Policy, which requires asylum seekers who reach the U.S.-Mexico border to wait in Mexico while they navigate U.S. immigration courts.
The Trump administration says Guatemala is a safe place for migrants to seek asylum. Immigrant rights activists say it is not only unsafe, but also one of the main countries asylum seekers are fleeing.
Joshua Rubin, another member of Witness at the Border, has been in Brownsville for more than a month. He said what he’s seen on the border and at the airport breaks his heart.
“These people fled a situation, most likely that threatened their lives, and we’re flying them back into those places where their lives are in danger,” Rubin said. “What it must feel like to come all this distance, for a lot of them to pay a lot of money to get here, to be captured and to be fast tracked, to have asylum claims denied.”
The Trump Administration has not disclosed the total number of migrants sent to Guatemala under the new agreement. Information about the flights has become public through nonprofit workers in Guatemala and the Guatemalan government.
Charanya Krishnaswami, Americas Advocacy Director for Amnesty International USA, is currently in Guatemala documenting the implementation of the new deportation agreement. Ariana Sawyer, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, is also in Guatemala.
So what does this look like in practice for the actual human beings - families, children, traumatized ppl - who’ve been subjected to this evil policy? By the time they get to the shelter, it’s usually 8-9 p.m. They’re exhausted, hungry, confused, have been denied showers by @CBP https://t.co/2ZoSfZdN1x— Ariana Sawyer (@ArianaMSawyer) February 15, 2020
Krishnaswami said Hondurans and Salvadorans who are sent to Guatemala under the agreement are transported to the country alongside Guatemalan returnees, and all of the migrants arrive at a commercial airport, La Aurora in Guatemala City.
“ICE says that because of security concerns they’re supposed to be handcuffed, so they end up coming off of the plane in handcuffs,” Krishnaswami said. “It’s important to remember that these are folks who were woken up at one in the morning for processing. They usually arrive at the airport at around 10 or 11 in the morning.”
“They’re told they have 72 hours to decide whether they want to seek asylum in Guatemala or whether they want to accept voluntary return,” Krishnaswami said.
She said migrants are first taken to a legal orientation, then to a migrant shelter where they can sleep.
“I think about 25 people have opted for voluntary return, according to IOM [International Organization For Migration],” said Krishnaswami.
She said officials with Guatemalan migration told her only 14 people have sought asylum there, meaning the vast majority of people are unaccounted for.
In Guate now trying to track people sent here under horrific new anti-asylum programs - which is proving a near-impossible task - I feel this deeply.
Even if these programs are stopped, how do we locate the hundreds already subject to them? How do we ever make them whole? https://t.co/yBws2rZa41— Charanya Krishnaswami (@charanya_k) February 18, 2020
She said there isn’t enough shelter capacity to house the migrants while they decide whether to seek asylum. She also said the journey has likely been traumatic for some migrants.
“Not even understanding that that’s where you’re going and only realizing it upon landing and that complete lack of orientation, that complete lack of counseling, I think exacerbates existing traumas and creates new ones,” Krishnaswami said.
Ramiro Gonzalez is the director of government and community affairs with the city of Brownsville. He said he doesn’t know how many migrants are deported on flights coming out of the airport.
“We really don’t know, we just know that whatever policy they’re using, they’re using our airport to fly people in, or to fly people out,” Gonzalez said. “We really have no idea where they’re coming from, if they’re being bused in from Laredo or El Paso. We just know that these flights go out.”
Diane Sonde, an activist from Brooklyn, NY, said she was distressed to see that young people coming into the airport on a bus were wearing handcuffs.
“When the police came to remove us from the area I asked them how they could sleep at night and how would they feel if this was their children and their families being torn apart,” said Sonde. “They wouldn’t even look us in the eye.”
The protestors said they will continue to be on the border for as long as they can.
The Department of Homeland Security has not responded to multiple requests for comment and has provided no data on how many people have been sent to Guatemala under the agreement.
Similar asylum cooperative agreements are expected to go into effect in El Salvador and Honduras.