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Volume 14, Number 2
Jan. 20 - Feb. 2, 2008


news

Also in this section:
Outlines of Torrijos immigration plan emerging
PRD holds internal elections
British corporate infighting, Panamanian scandal or both?
DIJ takes over from PTJ
Obama supporter who represents González becomes an issue for some
Panama News Briefs

Details of draft immigration decree start to come out
by Eric Jackson

There are problems with Panama's immigration system. Hardly anybody questions that.

However, just what's a problem, and for whom, is a matter of great dispute.

Take, for example, the case of twice-convicted felon Mark Boswell, who goes by the alias Rex Freeman. He wouldn't be wise to go back to Costa Rica, where he last lived. There, the police raided his offices in a San Jose suburb last October and forensics experts are sorting through what they can pull out of the computer hard drives they seized. Besides, in Costa Rica he has a bunch of angry former employees who say he didn't pay them and angry investors who say he cheated them.

As best we know, Boswell alias Freeman would be free to go back to Colorado and the live he left behind as a "patriot" militia shill. But with his two felony convictions there, and memories of his fleeting moment in the spotlight when he "exposed" the well hidden scandal about how Tim McVeigh didn't blow up the Oklahoma City Federal Building --- Bill Clinton actually did it was the claim asserted on his radio show --- it would seem that the self-proclaimed "Ex-Pat Warrior" would not be received as a respected prophet back there.

But why was he received at all as a resident of Panama? Our current immigration laws have it that convicted felons don't qualify to become permanent residents.

Ah, but our current immigration system works for the "Rex Freemans" of this world. Not only is he allowed to move here, he's allowed to offer unregistered banking services on the Internet.

Usually, that means that the system is working for somebody else as well. Great fortunes have been made over many years by public officials taking bribes to bend immigration rules. A system that creates ample spaces for corruption clearly works for the pecuniary interests of those in a position to take bribes.

How high has the immigration corruption gone? Well, if you care to believe the Clinton and Bush administrations (the one headed by a convicted liar and the other by a guy who led his country into a disastrous war for a lie, but those are other stories), it went as high as former President Ernesto Pérez Balladares, who was stripped of his US visa for an alleged role in the sale of Panamanian immigration documents to Chinese citizens seeking to illegally enter the United States.

If you ask a lot of rank and file members of the opposition Panameñista Party, whose maximum hero once stripped all Panamanians of Asian descent of their citizenship, the problem with immigration is the Chinese. As many other Panamanians, particularly in business circles, it's Colombians in particular. In this country's relatively small universe of xenophobes, others will say the trouble is the gringos.

Then there are all the professional organizations trying very hard to keep foreign competitors from coming here and practicing their particular crafts, people concerned about the international spread of contagious diseases, parents who don't appreciate the prospect of a foreign child molester moving in next door, and human rights activists who insist that Panama obey treaties on the treatment of refugees who come fleeing across our border from the violence in Colombia. There are even Panamanians who just believe in quaint ideas about honest and efficient government and rightly see its negation in our current immigration system.

The National Assembly, its majority caucus busy at the moment with PRD internal party elections, gave President Torrijos the power to legislate about immigration by decree before leaving on their current recess. Decrees avoid legislative committee hearings and other opportunities for debate, discussion and disclosure, such as they normally are. But it seems that Torrijos may want to hear some feedback about what he's thinking, because a draft of the immigration decree was leaked to La Prensa and the deputy director of Migracion talked to El Panama America about the plan.

We know from the administration's request for decree powers in the first place that Torrijos intends to create an Immigration Authority. We know from statements by Vice President and Foreign Minister Samuel Lewis Navarro, and by other administration figures, that there is some commitment to rectify the problem that reducing the time given with tourist visas (30 days, extendable to 90, down from 90 days, extendable to 180) have created for the "snowbird" tourists who like to winter here while their homes in Canada or elsewhere are frozen. We know from the various ad hoc policies applied to foreigners seeking to enter Panama via Paso Canoa in particular that there is a desire to rid Panama of the "perpetual tourists" who live here on tourist visas, leaving and returning every so often to reset the calendar of their legal presence.

We don't know the totality of the government's plan, and surely won't until it's a done deal. That's a problem inherent in the process of legislating by decree, especially when there are a lot of people with very real concerns who'd like to be heard.

There is a public consultation of sorts. None of the immigrant or resident foreigner communities are being consulted, but the Motta family's COPA Airlines is. That part of the real estate industry that's trying to sell to foreign retirees is not being consulted, but that part of the tourism industry that's recognized by IPAT is. Organized labor is not being consulted, but business groups and the Ministry of Labor are.

The details of the draft decree that have been published in dribs and drabs, mostly by the PRD-aligned daily newspaper La Prensa, are surely incomplete. By the amount of space dedicated to the subject alone we know that what we have learned is a series of reporters' and editors' takes on which portions of a very long document seem important to them. 

What we see in those details that have come out is in large part a manifestation of the Norieguista police state aspect of the Torrijismo of Torrijos the Younger. These are some of the changes:

  • There will be a new police force, called the Direccion de Seguridad Migratoria, which will be armed and uniformed and have the power to enter hotel rooms or other places where foreigners are suspected to be present;


  • Lawyers will not be required for the filing of most immigration paperwork, and will be barred from contact with lower-level immigration officials;


  • The price of visas and other immigration procedures will go up, with a tourist visa going from $5 to $50, an application for a resident visa going from $100 to $250 and so on;


  • There will be at least 112 new jobs created in the immigration reorganizations, which are likely to be filled by PRD party loyalists as part of the 2009 election campaign;

  • There is going to be some sort of "temporary immigrant" status created;


  • The refugee issue will not be addressed; and

  • Although in various ways the Panamanian government has always had the power to deport foreigners who break this country's laws or otherwise behave obnoxiously, there will be a behavioral catch-all deportation clause and a new one related exclusively to limit the freedom of expression enjoyed by foreigners --- people will be deportable for attacking "public safety" or offenses "against morals and good customs, or for "making apologies for crime, or inciting racial, religious, cultural or political hatred."

In an interview with El Panama America, deputy immigration director Tayra Barsallo added that the new law would be designed to end "favoritism" toward certain immigration lawyers; that authorities would be given the power they need to "locate those illegal aliens who are in hiding;" and that every foreign resident of Panama would be given a number which will have no expiration date, so as to keep long term track of who comes and goes and, she said, prevent identity theft.

Former Vice President, Union Patriotica leader and 2009 presidential hopeful Guillermo Ford disagrees. "I don't see the necessity" for another armed law enforcement unit, he told La Estrella, pointing out that the police are already authorized to provide any force that's needed when there's a possibility of violence in an immigration matter. "The new law has no other purpose than to increase the income from the system's corruption, leaving immigrants shorn of protection and turning them into hostages of an institution that's hungry for bribes," charged attorney, human rights activist and mayoral candidate Miguel Antonio Bernal.


Also in this section:

Outlines of Torrijos immigration plan emerging
PRD holds internal elections
British corporate infighting, Panamanian scandal or both?
DIJ takes over from PTJ
Obama supporter who represents González becomes an issue for some
Panama News Briefs

 

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