The Feds Moved Migrants in Unmarked Vans Overseas

Homeland Security rented vans to illegally hustle migrants to the border—in a foreign country.

A Central American migrant and his child
A Central American migrant and his child traveling as part of a caravan to the United States remain with a group of mostly Honduran migrants at the international bridge that connects Tecun Uman, Guatemala, with Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, on Jan. 20. Johan Odonez/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security rented unmarked vans to pick up migrants in Guatemala and transport them back to the country’s border with Honduras, misusing U.S. government funds and violating its agreement with the State Department—potentially exposing the United States to legal risk, according to a report released Tuesday by Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The incident, which took place in January, lacked measures to ensure the security and safety of the migrants or to screen whether any were seeking asylum, the report said. DHS was unable to confirm to Democratic committee staff whether any families and children had become separated during transportation. 

“The Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection have no business acting as un-deputized international migration police throughout Latin America. Congress must once again step in to serve as a check on this president’s unhinged anti-immigration agenda,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, the seniormost Democrat on the committee.

News of the operation comes as the Trump administration has sought to increase the role played by DHS in Central America, supplanting the State Department’s traditional job of charting U.S. foreign policy in the region. In 2019, the Trump administration suspended most foreign aid to the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador until Central American governments took effective steps to stop migration into the United States.

“The big picture is that DHS has completely taken over foreign policy at the State Department with respect to the Northern Triangle,” said Francisco Bencosme, a senior policy advisor for Latin America with the Open Society Foundation. 

Both DHS and the Department of Justice work in Central America to help train local police and border authorities using funds from the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement. Agreements between the agencies explicitly prohibit DHS employees from conducting immigration or law enforcement operations with those funds. 

However, in January as a large group of migrants crossed from Honduras into Guatemala, DHS personnel in the area departed from past practice and deployed in support of Guatemala’s border police in a bid to break up a so-called caravan of migrants looking to travel to the United States together. It was during this operation that DHS agents hired unmarked vehicles and drivers to transport migrants back to the border with Honduras. The move was a direct violation of the agency’s agreement with the State Department and may have exposed the U.S. government to possible financial and legal liabilities, according to the report. 

On Jan. 16, as the migrants began crossing the border into Guatemala, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf said in a Fox News radio interview that, “[w]e have CBP agents—tactical agents—in Guatemala.” Last month, a federal judge in Maryland ruled that Wolf’s installation as acting secretary of DHS may have been unlawful under agency succession rules. 

“Wolf ’s comments about the deployment of ‘tactical agents’ alluded to an unauthorized DHS operation conducted by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel in the country,” the report notes. 

According to the report, DHS then lied to the State Department about its role in working with the authorities in Guatemala to send migrants back to the border, which in turn caused the State Department to submit misleading information to Congress when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made inquiries about DHS’s work in the country.

DHS later acknowledged that it had used State Department funds to rent three 12-person passenger vans to forcibly return migrants back to the border with Honduras. In a meeting with Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff at the end of January, DHS officials said that the person who had authorized the operation in Guatemala was being immediately returned to Washington and that their assignment in the country had been cut short. 

Neither DHS nor the Guatemalan Embassy in Washington responded to requests for comment. Earlier this year, Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei argued that U.S.-Guatemala relations are one-sided. “Guatemala is an ally of the United States, but I don’t believe the U.S. is an ally to Guatemala, because they don’t treat us like one,” he said.

Bencosme of the Open Society Foundation said it was “inconceivable” that the incident was the result of a rogue DHS operative in Guatemala. 

“It’s part of a larger culture of impunity set at the highest levels, of policies of deportation, and DHS has to some extent been given a green light to run amok with this policy which contravenes international human rights norms and treaty obligations,” he said.

While women and children were transported separately from men, DHS was unable to confirm to the committee whether any families had been separated by the operation, whether children were left unaccompanied, or whether their agents had put in place measures to reunite families once they arrived at the border with Honduras. DHS also told the State Department that they were unaware whether any of the people transported back to the border with Honduras had applied for asylum in Guatemala. 

“In failing to develop appropriate screening protocols for the Honduran migrants, the DHS operation exposed the U.S. Government to possible complicity in any potential violation of the principle of non-refoulement enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, as well as the 1984 Convention Against Torture, which both Guatemala and the United States are required to uphold,” the report notes. 

Jason Marczak, a Latin America expert at the Atlantic Council, said that the report highlighted the challenges that migrants endure. 

“This is an incredibly perilous journey. And along the journey migrants face extortion, kidnapping, rape. They face a whole host of awful things,” he said. “And then on top of that, there’s a secret operation being carried out by DHS. Migrants don’t know who they’re dealing with. I mean, imagine being put into an unmarked van and being transported back.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Augusta Saraiva is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @gutavsaraiva

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