WASHINGTON — U.S. officials have started to send families seeking asylum to Guatemala, even if they are not from the Central American country and had sought protection in the United States, the Los Angeles Times has learned.

In July, the Trump administration announced a new rule effectively ending asylum at the southern U.S. border and requiring asylum-seekers to claim protection elsewhere. Under the rule – which currently faces legal challenges – virtually any migrant who passes through another country before reaching the U.S. border and does not seek asylum there will be deemed ineligible for protection in the United States. Guatemala’s highest court initially said the country’s president couldn’t unilaterally enter into an agreement with the United States to take the asylum-seekers, but since late November, U.S. officials have forcibly returned individuals to Guatemala.

U.S. officials said they would return only single adults at first. But starting Tuesday, they began applying the policy to non-Guatemalan parents and children, according to communications obtained by the Times and several U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials.

A family of three from Honduras who were served with notice Tuesday that they’d soon be deported to Guatemala would be the first to be sent to that country under the new policy.

The Trump administration has reached similar agreements with Guatemala’s Northern Triangle neighbors, El Salvador and Honduras, in each case obligating those countries to take people who reach the U.S. border after crossing their territory. Those agreements, however, have yet to be implemented.

The administration describes the agreements as an “effort to share the distribution of hundreds of thousands of asylum claims.”

The deals – also referred to as “safe third country” agreements – “are formed between the United States and foreign countries where (migrants) removed to those countries would have access to a full and fair procedure for determining a claim to asylum or equivalent temporary protection,” according to the federal notice.

Guatemala has virtually no asylum system of its own, but the Trump administration and Guatemalan government both said the returns would roll out slowly and selectively.

The expansion of the policy to families could mean many more asylum-seekers being forcibly removed to Guatemala.

Experts, advocates, the United Nations and Guatemalan officials say the country doesn’t have the capacity to handle any sizable influx, much less process potential protection claims. Guatemala’s own struggles with corruption, violence and poverty helped push more than 270,000 Guatemalans to the U.S. border in fiscal 2019.

Citizenship and Immigration and Homeland Security officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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