Nativist Fears Threaten a Good Thing Going in Panama

EspañolOn Tuesday, the National Assembly of Panama opened debate over the country’s immigration policy, known as Crisol de Razas (Melting Pot of Races). The 15th and final discourse of this kind will take place on October 2-12.

Panama Immigration
When Panama became a republic in 1903, it had just 300,000 residents. The immigration of at least 100,000 people was necessary for the construction of the canal. (Wikimedia)

This debate presents a challenge: xenophobic attitudes ought not be legitimized, nor should legal immigration system be compromised, as it contributes to the sustained growth of the national economy.

Since colonization, Panama has grown into a global convergence point, something that is expressed in its economic character and ethnic diversity.

However, it appears that certain sectors want to benefit from a controlled labor market that gives preference to Panamanians, while at the same enjoying the economic benefits and quality of life that is only offered — and has been achieved — through open competition.

The Fight for the Melting Pot

A a result of the “Melting Pot” policy, since 2010 Panama has offered legal residency to 48,000 foreigners, generating almsot US$50 million in entry-fee revenue for the National Treasury.

But on September 8, Panamanian Minister of External Relations Isabel Saint Malo announced the policy will be coming to an end.

On September 15, the opposition Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) presented a bill (number 101) to the National Assembly. They propose a new Immigration Code, including changes to the handling of illegal immigrants: a “solution to the migrant labor problem that afflicts the country, given the excessive liberalization of the issuance of temporary residency and work permits to foreigners.”

Other advocacy voices have made similar pronouncements, including youth movement Panama for Panamanians, the Federation of Professional Associations of Panama (FEDAP), and the Commission for Migrants’ Rights of the National Bar Association (CNA).

Robert Quinn, an anti-immigrant leader, was one of the first to declare the rising sentiment. In early September, he said “We are going to express our discontent with this illegal-immigration policy, and we are going to eradicate it once and for all.”

According to Luis Chen, president of FEDAP, “Panamanians can no longer resist this invasion of foreigners who arrive illegally in Panama to take our jobs. Panamanians from all types of professions have to wake up and defend our right to work.”

These comments have awakened the sensitivities of both foreigners and Panamanian nationals. The use of phrases like “invasion of foreigners” and “taking jobs” has revealed a dark side of the typically warm Panamanian people.

Critics have also tried to attribute crime levels in Panama City to the growth of the foreign population. However, Javier Carrillo, director of the National Immigration Service, said that of the almost 50,000 legal residents that have arrived since 2010 as part of the “Melting Pot” policy, only nine have committed crimes to date.

Prioritize: Prosperity versus Nationalism

Arguments over the pros and cons of the immigration policy have heated up, especially on social media.

At the end of 2013, it was estimated that Panama had a population of 3,864,170 people, with a moderate population density of 51 residents per square kilometer, lower than countries like Costa Rica and Mexico. Although current figures are not available, various agencies estimate that foreigners comprise approximately 8 percent of the population — hardly an invasion.

At the same time, the country has seen rapid economic growth in recent years: 8 percent annually between 2006 and 2012, and projected growth of 6 percent for 2013. On the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings, which evaluates the ease of doing business in 184 countries throughout the world, Panama ranks 55th. That is up eight spots from last year, and it is the fourth ranked Latin-American country on the list. Panama is also recognized as a high-income nation, and enjoys a favorable unemployment rate: 4.3 percent as of March 2014.

But many Panamanians still wonder why immigrants continue arriving in their country. The health of the economy, as well as the lifestyle offered in Panama, is very appealing to immigrants from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Colombia, and Venezuela. The country’s fertile business climate is also attractive to investors from more affluent countries, like the United States, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands.

Barely anyone defends the manner in which people live illegally in the country, surviving on lower salaries than legal immigrants. It is inhumane and generates unfair competition. If Panamanians want their economy to keep growing, openness and expedited legalization of immigrants seeking employment is the only guarantee that the most competent individuals will fill job vacancies, independent of their nationality.

Panamanians have to be willing to compete on equal footing with the rest of the world’s citizens if they want more prosperity for their country.

Protectionism can be justified to a point, to promote training and professionalization, but quality economic performance that comes with free-market labor competition contributes to the health of the private sector and provides more employment for everyone.

Panamanians cannot allow this to be the start of a vast immigration bureaucracy, closing doors to those who contribute to  the development of the country.

They cannot allow the “Melting Pot” debate to turn into a source of xenophobia, rejection, and offensive language directed toward foreigners. These people want to see Panama flourish, improve, and offer the best for all children born in the republic, independent of their parents’ nationality.

The current presence of immigrants explains, and will continue to explain, something natural: humans will always move to places where they can find better life opportunities. It seems incredible that in the 21st century the following is still not understood: no one flees his home country, to live far away from his family and his natural environment, just for fun.

Panama, like other American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, the United States), is witness to the positive results of sustained immigration.

I am certain that New York would not be what it is today if it weren’t for foreigners, and I don’t believe Panama would be either. There is nothing offensive about that.

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