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The State Department is telling US tourists that El Salvador is now as safe as Denmark

That’s suspiciously convenient for Trump’s immigration policy.

A migration officer stands in front of a helicopter.
A Salvadoran migration officer stands in front of a helicopter on the country’s border with Guatemala, on September 12, 2019. El Salvador’s Ministry of Justice and Public Safety says it’s increased patrolling of the border.
Camilo Freedman/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

The State Department has declared El Salvador safer for American travelers after advising them to avoid it since at least 2013, saying that it’s now safe to travel to the country if they exercise “increased caution.”

Given that violent crime, gang activity, and ineffective policing is still common in the country, as its State Department travel warning notes, it’s not clear what about the situation in El Salvador has changed. A State Department spokesperson said that the agency’s updated guidance better reflects the current conditions in El Salvador.

“We have no greater responsibility than the welfare of U.S. citizens overseas,” the spokesperson said. “Travel Advisories are based on a comprehensive and objective review of safety and security conditions that could affect the lives and interests of U.S. citizens abroad — not bilateral political or economic considerations.”

The updated guidance came just after the Trump administration struck a deal with El Salvador to return migrants who passed through the country en route to seek asylum in the US last week — a deal criticized for sending people fleeing persecution back into a dangerous situation.

On Tuesday, the agency downgraded its travel alert for El Salvador.

The State Department rates other countries’ safety for traveling Americans on a scale from 1 (“Exercise Normal Precautions,” indicating a country that is currently without specific potential threats for travelers) to 4 (“Do Not Travel,” a category that includes war zones, Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea).

El Salvador, along with neighboring Honduras, had been rated a 3: “Reconsider Travel.” It’s now rated a 2, putting it on par with neighboring countries Mexico and Guatemala, as well as Denmark, France, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. Honduras, by contrast, still remains a level 3.

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele tweeted Tuesday that the country had just seen the safest quarter since it signed a peace agreement in 1992 ending a civil war that lasted more than a decade. But the State Department’s description of the ongoing dangers in El Salvador is not encouraging:

Violent crime, such as murder, assault, rape, and armed robbery, is common. Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics and arms trafficking, is widespread. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.

While some Level 2 advisories state that certain areas of the country are more dangerous for tourists and should be avoided, there are no such qualifications on El Salvador’s page.

The Trump administration wants to send migrants back to El Salvador

The Trump administration is readying to implement an agreement signed September 20 that would allow it to require migrants who pass through El Salvador to seek asylum there rather than in the US. That part of the agreement would only go into effect if the US deems El Salvador able to protect asylum seekers, according to acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan.

“Individuals crossing through El Salvador should be able to seek protections there, and we want to enforce the integrity of that process throughout the region,” he said when the agreement was announced.

The agreement with El Salvador is one of many measures that the Trump administration has taken in recent months to make seeking asylum in the US more difficult, and in many cases almost impossible, for Central Americans. Most of the migrants arriving at the US southern border are coming from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, where rampant crime, violence, and corruption is driving tens of thousands to flee.

The agreement means the US can return migrants seeking asylum because they fear persecution to El Salvador, which has the highest intentional homicide rate worldwide, in large part due to its 60,000 criminal gang members. A United Nations report also found that Salvadoran police have shown a pattern of carrying out extrajudicial killings.

Persecution by these gangs and has led many of its citizens to flee to the US: About 98,000 Salvadorans have been arrested at the southern border this fiscal year so far, more than half of whom are families, according to US Customs and Border Protection.

Even the Peace Corps in El Salvador has suspended operations since 2016.

McAleenan said in September that Salvadoran police had arrested 5,000 gang members nationwide over the prior two months and that the Salvadoran government deployed an additional 800 police officers and 300 immigration agents along its borders.

Bukele acknowledged Tuesday that the country still has a lot of work to do to improve safety, but criticized Salvadorans protesting the State Department’s move to downgrade the US’s travel alert, questioning in Spanish, “Who can hate their own country so much?”