The United States and El Salvador on Friday, Sept. 20, signed an agreement to help make the Central American country a haven for migrants seeking asylum.

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan and El Salvador Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill Tinoco, signed the “cooperative asylum agreement” in a live-streamed press conference. They praised the two countries for working together to stem migration to the United States.

McAleenan, who called the agreement “a big step forward,” and Hill Tinoco discussed U.S. assistance in making El Salvador a safer and more prosperous place for its citizens.

“We are working every single day to try and solve this issue of people who, by various reasons—reasons of insecurity or reasons of death threats—are forced to leave our country,” Hill Tinoco said.

The agreement could lead to migrants from third countries obtaining refuge in El Salvador.

McAleenan said that the deal recognizes the development of the Central American country’s own asylum system and builds on its capacity to handle more migrants.

“They have a developing asylum capacity,” he said. “We seek to support that and recognize it, and we seek to partner operationally where appropriate on insuring that we can address irregular migration flows and the criminal organizations that profit from them in the region,” according to The Hill.

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan during a news conference with El Salvador Foreign Affairs Minister Alexandra Hill at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection headquarters in Washington, on Sept. 20, 2019. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo)

McAleenan said the agreement advanced El Salvador’s commitment to developing an asylum framework, with help from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

“This will build on the good work we have accomplished already with El Salvador’s neighbor, Guatemala, in building protection capacity to try to further our efforts to provide opportunities to seek protection for political, racial, religious, or social group persecution as close as possible to the origin of individuals that need it,” McAleenan said.

“That is one potential use of the agreement, that individuals crossing through El Salvador should be able to seek protections there,” he said. “But it’s a broader part of our partnership in addressing migration flows in the region.”

Immigration officials also are forcing more than 42,000 people to remain in Mexico as their cases play out and have changed policy to deny asylum to anyone who transited through a third country en route to the southern border of the United States.

The agreement would be another step by the Trump administration aimed at stopping the flow of migrants into the United States. McAleenan also signed a “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala, and officials in that country are working out a way to implement it.

The Trump administration this year warned that it would withhold all federal assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras unless they did more to end the migrant crisis. 

In June, the State Department announced that the Trump administration was reversing some of the cuts but would not approve future aid to those nations. The State Department said then that some $370 million from the 2018 budget will not be spent and instead will be moved to other projects.

Includes reporting from the Associated Press