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By Alexandra Alper and Sofia Menchu
WASHINGTON/GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - The United States and Guatemala are close to reaching a safe third country agreement as part of an effort to curb U.S-bound migrants, President Donald Trump said on Wednesday, offering no details about when such a deal might be finalized.
Trump, who made the remarks at a gathering of religious conservatives in Washington, said last week that a pact was close. About a week ago, however, Guatemala's interior minister, Enrique Degenhart, said discussions were ongoing but a deal had not yet been reached.
The U.S. Homeland Security Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Trump's remarks.
Under a safe third country agreement, Guatemala would be obliged to process asylum claims from migrants who entered its territory first while en route to another country. That could apply to U.S.-bound Honduran or Salvadoran migrants passing through Guatemala.
Degenhart, speaking in the Guatemalan capital on Wednesday, still would not detail any agreement with the United States on designating Guatemala as a safe third country, but emphasized that changes to migration rules must be made in consensus with other Central American countries.
He said Guatemala is one of several countries seeking to end what he dubbed "abuses" committed by members of migrant caravans that have exploited a regional migration convention that allows passage without restrictions or checks between Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Degenhart said Guatemala's government is working "to close the legal vulnerability that the United States considers is being abused again," and that officials from Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia will join migration talks set for next week in Washington.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, speaking at the same event, emphasized the need for additional partners.
"The burden of addressing the migration flows will be something we do together as a partnership in the entire region with multiple countries," he said.
Neighboring Mexico has so far refused to take on the safe third country role despite pressure from Washington to do more to stem migration.
A surge in migrant families seeking asylum, mostly from Central America, has overwhelmed U.S. border facilities.
Cracking down on immigration has been a long-standing priority for Trump. The U.S. president moved earlier this month to cut U.S. aid to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras over migration, although he said last week that Guatemala "is much different than it was under past administrations."
(Reporting by Alexandra Alper in Washington and Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Tim Ahmann, Susan Thomas and Leslie Adler)