President Donald Trump on Tuesday threatened retribution against Guatemala over immigration after the country's high court blocked its government from signing an asylum deal with the United States.
Trump tweeted that Guatemala has decided against signing a "safe-third agreement" requiring Central American migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. to instead apply for those protections in Guatemala, even though the country's government never said it had agreed to the arrangement.
Guatemala "has decided to break the deal they had with us on signing a necessary Safe Third Agreement. We were ready to go," Trump complained. "Now we are looking at the 'BAN,'" he wrote, along with tariffs, fees on remittance money Guatemalans working in the U.S. send back to their country, "or all of the above."
Trump later painted the court ruling as a convenient excuse for the country, saying: "In other words, they didn't want to sign it."
Trump has been trying to get countries including Guatemala to do more to stop the flood of Central American migrants who have been overwhelming the U.S. southern border, jeopardizing his campaign promise to end illegal immigration. Negotiations over a potential deal ended when Guatemala's Constitutional Court granted three injunctions preventing President Jimmy Morales from entering into a deal.
A July 15 meeting between Trump and Guatemala's president was also called off because the high court had yet to issue its ruling.
Morales responded to the tweets with a statement posted on Facebook blaming Guatemala's Constitutional Court justices for upsetting Trump.
"The repercussions of the Government of the United States of America toward Guatemala derive from a series of counterproductive actions by the Constitutional Court, which on repeated occasions has ruled against the content and spirit of our Constitution," Morales said, adding that "most of its judges, identified as having personal political interests, have used their investment to meddle in the foreign policy of the Guatemalan state."
Trump nonetheless accused the country's leaders of having gone "back on their word to us" in remarks at a summit of conservative teenagers in Washington.
"They were all set to sign a safe third agreement and then today or yesterday, they announced they can't do it because they got a Supreme Court ruling. Their Supreme Court, right?" Trump said in a dismissive tone, repeating his tariff and "ban" threat.
The White House did not respond to questions Tuesday about what he meant in his reference to a "ban," but the United States is Guatemala's most important trade partner, with the countries swapping $10.9 billion worth of goods last year. The top U.S. exports to Guatemala include fuel minerals such as coal, petroleum and natural gas; machinery and corn. Top imports from Guatemala include bananas and plantains, clothing and coffee.
Still, Guatemala's economy is small and its people poor, making for a lopsided relationship. Guatemala ranks just 46th among U.S. partners in the trade of goods, and any sanctions would likely first impact Guatemala's financial and industrial elite, said political analyst Roberto Santiago.
Trump could also hurt the country by trying to tax remittances, which are equal to 12.1% of the Guatemalan economy, according to the World Bank.
Trump also accused the country by tweet of "forming Caravans and sending large numbers of people, some with criminal records, to the United States," even though there is no evidence that the Guatemalan government had anything to do with organizing the migrant caravans or "sending" anyone to the U.S. The caravans, a phenomenon that died out months ago after Mexico cracked down, originated in neighboring Honduras and were joined by people from Guatemala, El Salvador and elsewhere as they moved through Guatemala and then Mexico.
Trump's comments came a day after the two countries issued a friendly joint statement that made no mention of the "safe-third" idea. Instead, it said the two governments "continue to make important progress on a comprehensive regional approach to addressing irregular migration patterns," citing joint efforts "to reduce the flow of irregular migration and ensure the safety and protection of vulnerable populations, especially children."
U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials were set to meet with officials from the Northern Triangle countries Wednesday.
A "safe-third agreement" would mean that Salvadorans, Hondurans and people from elsewhere who cross into Guatemala would have to apply for asylum there instead of doing so at the U.S. border — potentially easing the crush of migrants overwhelming the U.S. immigration system and handing Trump a concession he could herald as a win.
Like its Central American neighbors, Guatemala suffers from poverty and violence, making it an unlikely refuge for those fleeing El Salvador and Honduras. And critics have said the Guatemalan government lacks the resources to help migrants and asylum-seekers trying to make it to the U.S. when tens of thousands of its own citizens have fled just this year.
"This is not a country that could be seen as a safe haven," said Paul Angelo, fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Negotiations between Washington and Guatemala had been carried out behind closed doors with little information released to the public. U.S. officials had said that a "safe third country" was on the table, though not finalized, even as the Guatemalan government said it was not intending to make such a deal.
The same pattern has played out with Mexico, with Trump insisting that they have agreed to a secret "third safe" deal, even as that country has denied that.
"May it be very clear, the Executive Branch was always very aware of the measures that the U.S. Government could take if we refused to help," Morales said in his statement.
Trump and his administration have made numerous attempts to try to prevent migrants from legally claiming asylum in the U.S., including issuing a new rule last week that would deny asylum to anyone who passes through other countries en route to the U.S. without seeking refuge in at least one of those countries.
Two lawsuits were filed challenging the move and a judge in Washington, D.C., heard arguments Monday. A judge in San Francisco has set a hearing for Wednesday in a similar lawsuit.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Colleen Long also contributed to this report.