Xenophobia Not Welcome in Panama

EspañolSeveral things about Panama worry me, but nothing like the inflamed debate nowadays about immigrants and the role of foreign residents in the country. Nationalist and populist legislators’ rants have been rightfully called xenophobic in local media, and have become dangerous fodder for economic and social conflicts.

Panama’s National Assembly is currently studying Bill 62, which modifies portions of the National Migration Service law. It would do away with the Crisol de Razas program (Melting Pot of Races), which allows for the legalization of unauthorized immigrants who have resided in the country for over a year or overstayed their permitted entry.

It is true that the Crisol de Razas policy doesn’t attempt to plan for the needs of the internal labor market, by filtering people on the basis of profession or career path, but the reform has nothing to do with this alleged shortcoming.

Behind the push to scrap Crisol de Razas is Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) Deputy Zulay Rodríguez. She claims the influx of foreigners has caused a spike in crime, but she fails to mention important contributing internal factors such as poor public education. Similarly, other PRD legislators have blamed immigrants for inflation in services and land, because they’re willing to pay more for them — all the while criticizing foreigners for not investing in the country.

So deluded are they that on Monday, February 24, Rodríguez showed a reggaeton music video at the National Assembly called “Respect Panamanians,” as part of her campaign for Bill 62. The video starts with “No entry for foreign criminals,” and the song’s chorus goes “Venezuelans … out! Colombians … out!”

So much for Simón Bolívar‘s ideal of a united America.

All this toxic rhetoric has turned a healthy discussion about a country’s appropriate immigration policy into a shouting match full with generalizations and prejudices, bordering on collectivist racism.

One need look no further than Rodríguez’s Twitter account to see this, but what’s scary is how influential her hateful messages can be. A Panamanian citizen, for example, shared with me how another local spit on his Argentinean girlfriend, just to show his disgust of foreigners.

PRD deputies are playing with fire in exchange for a couple thousand votes, fueling hate and resentment that will unleash an unstoppable monster.

Why Migrants? It’s the Economy

Economic data and travelers both tell the story of Panama as a country open to foreign investment and the benefits of globalization.

Last month, Panama’s National Competitiveness Center (CNC) published a report pointing to a 71,682 demand shortfall between 2015-2020 for technicians and other skilled jobs. That is in a country where just 8 percent of the 4 million inhabitants are foreigners.

In August 2014, labor-market research by Manpower Group also revealed that Panama is the world’s eighth most difficult nation for one to find skilled labor, and fourth in Latin America. The study reports that 58 percent of local businesses struggle to hire qualified applicants.

Given this unmet demand, people will continue to immigrate to Panama, and the country will benefit from their presence. The economy knows no borders.

Benefits of Legal Immigrants

If immigrants find job in Panama, it’s only because there’s a company willing to hire them for an added value they can’t find in locals. That may be on account of comparative advantage in training, or because job seekers are willing to work for lower salaries, often because they lack legal documentation.

Economic reasoning tells us that the fewer illegal immigrants there are to work for lower wages, the more companies will have to offer better compensation on the open labor market. It’s understandable that Panamanians want to adjust their policy to encourage the kinds of migrants its economy needs most, but it’s self-destructive to eliminate programs like Crisol de Razas, when the incentives for the influx of migrants is not going away anytime soon. It will only create a large mass of vulnerable illegal-immigrant workers at the bottom of the labor market.

Politicians like Zulay Rodríguez forget that legalization programs generate revenue. Those of us who have immigrated to Panama are not here for free, and we don’t live underground. The rather expensive migration paperwork goes to the pockets of both the Treasury and lawyers.

La diputada Zulay Rodríguez ignora los beneficios económicos de la inmigración y convierte la discusión migratoria en una peligrosa catapulta de la xenofobia. (Asamblea Nacional)
Deputy Zulay Rodríguez ignores the economic benefits of immigration and has turned a healthy discussion into a xenophobic political stunt. (National Assembly)

She should know immigrants also pay taxes, and we spend our hard-earned salaries here. Those who send money to relatives abroad are free to do so, unless you want to argue they’re not entitled to the fruits of their labor.

Panamanian firms need employees with higher qualifications independent of nationality, and the country as a whole wins. The creation of ideas and new products creates wealth, which in turn generates more jobs and opportunities for the rest of the economy.

Panama should be proud that many foreign professionals choose it instead of other countries. To combat crime by foreigners and strengthen institutions, the government should focus on other spheres such as money-laundering and gangs, instead of making life harder for wage earners and entrepreneurs.

The PRD’s populist and unfounded agitation will do nothing to help Panama attain its economic and social goals. On the contrary, if aggression against foreigners escalates, I doubt businessmen and companies will stay, and we can kiss Panama’s virtual full employment goodbye. No one wants to invest where he is not welcome.

Instead of promoting xenophobia — an easy tool to win people over by creating scapegoats — politicians should come up with creative solutions to offer locals the opportunity to compete with the an increasingly global labor force.

For that there’s no need to manufacture hatred nor exclude foreigners who chose Panama as a place to call home.

Translated by Daniel Duarte. Edited by Fergus Hodgson.

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