Panama Announces Another Illegal-Alien Amnesty

By Kausha Luna, June 27, 2016

Just four years after an amnesty was decreed by the prior administration, the current Panamanian president has enacted two more amnesties: one for illegal aliens in general and the other specifically for Chinese illegal aliens.

There are approximately 10,000 Chinese illegal aliens in Panama.

Panama's President Varela has defended these amnesties as being in the economic interest of Panama. He said, "The decrees (with which we will proceed to legalization) were made thinking of Panama, because we need to formalize our economy, ensuring that all people, Panamanians or foreigners, pay their share of Social Security and contribute their taxes to national development." He added, "The only way to formalize more and more the economy and the jobs that the development of the country generates is to ensure that all foreigners have legal status."

The opposition to the amnesties, led by the National Association of Lawyers of Panama (CNA is the Spanish abbreviation), offers the following counter argument: "Our country cannot safeguard the right of foreigners, putting at risk the Panamanians or foreigners that comply with regulations. Prudence requires authorities to implement an immigration policy with a vision of the State." Raul Rodriguez, the former president of CNA, argues that these amnesties further promote illegal immigration and essentially reward it: "It's an award for illegality that promotes smuggling and human trafficking."

CNA also opposes Varela's decrees because in his campaign for president he had promised not to repeat the mass amnesty of the previous administration, known as the "Panama, Melting Pot". (This is reminiscent of Senator Rubio's flip-flopping on immigration in time with the election cycles.) CNA has accused the two new decrees of being a "Panama, Melting Pot" program in disguise.

The "Panama, Melting Pot" amnesty (Executive Decree 547) granted legal status to 39,000 illegal aliens under the previous administration (equivalent to about 3.4 million people in the U.S.).

The first of the two new amnesties, Executive Decree 167 of June 3, 2016, establishes a "general immigration regularization procedure and repeals the Executive Decree 547 of July 25, 2012." The "regularization procedure" under Decree 167 consists of the issuance of a temporary residence permit (valid for two years), that is to be granted at the National Immigration Service offices. Furthermore, at the end of each year the National Immigration Services will set the maximum number of foreigners whose situation could be "regularized" through this process in the next calendar year, by taking into account economic climate.

Article 2 of this decree outlines the requirements that illegal aliens must meet to undergo this process. One must be 18 years of age or older, if under 18 the alien must have notarized permission from their parents and proof of kinship. In case the alien left the country, it could not have been for more than 30 consecutive or nonconsecutive days. Additionally, the alien cannot have an open regularization process before the National Immigration Services. And, the alien must personally apply for "regularization."

Article 3 lists the seven documents the alien has to present to Immigration Services including, 2 passport sized photos and a full authenticated passport copy. An affidavit of liability or sworn letter of responsibility by a Panamanian national or permanent resident is also required. The alien must show proof of residency for the "sponsoring" Panamanian national or permanent resident. Additionally, the alien has to present his or her criminal record from the last country of residence (if the alien has been in Panama for less than two years) or a Panamanian criminal record (if the alien has been in the country for two years or more). Also, the alien must fill out personal history forms and enroll to the Social Security Fund.

According to Article 4, individuals will be subject to an interview and evaluation by the National Immigration Services to determine whether the provisional permit will be granted. Then, Article 5 determines the cost of "immigration services" for this process. The costs are divided into three categories including, nationalities with visa waver agreements ($517), nationalities without visa waiver agreements ($1,022), and restricted nationalities ($2,103). Per Article 6, these fees will be waved for minors under twelve years of age, people with severe disabilities, adults over 85 years old, those that suffer from terminal illnesses, and for humanitarian reasons.

In comparison, applying for President Obama's legally dubious DACA amnesty costs a total of $465, regardless of the illegal alien's country of origin.

Once the two year temporary residence permits expires then the alien may renew the permit, which will be extended for six years, according to the guidelines spelled out in the Executive Decree 169 of May 22, 2015.

Varela's second amnesty – for the Chinese – is similar to Decree 167, but there are some differences. The Executive Decree 168 of June 3, 2016 establishes the procedure and requirements for the "Extraordinary Process of Immigration Regularization for those nationals from the People's Republic of China in an irregular immigration situation in the Republic of Panama". The decree notes that there are a great number of Chinese illegal aliens in the country; as such, it is "pertinent" to set a procedure to "regularize those that have been in Panama for various years." However, "various years" is not defined. But, it is noted that only those Chinese nationals that entered Panama prior to January 1, 2016 can benefit from this amnesty.

The Chinese illegal aliens will be given Provisional Permits, valid for two years, given they meet the requirements. After two years, they can apply for Permanent Resident permits.

These requirements include being 18 years of age or older, not having an open legalization process before National Immigration Services, and personally going to apply for legalization. Decree 168 also requires some additional documentation from Chinese nationals, in comparison to Decree 167. Chinese illegal aliens, like those of other nationalities, have to present letters of responsibility from a permanent resident or Panamanian national. However, in addition to these letters, the "sponsor" must also demonstrate that they have sufficient economic solvency. Furthermore, the Chinese illegal alien, not simply the "sponsor", must show proof of residency. The Chinese national has to have proof of family relationship or any investment in the country, and have to prove date of entrance.

In terms of costs, the amnesty process is more expensive for Chinese nationals. The cost is equivalent to $2,505. However, the most notable difference between Decree 167 and 168 is that the Chinese amnesty will be open for applications for one year. No time frame was set for the general amnesty.

The two lines of thought surrounding these decrees – sweeping amnesties in the economic interest of the country versus immigration policies enacted in the interests of citizens and legal immigrants – can also be heard in the debate surrounding Obama's DAPA and extended DACA programs. As the case of U.S. v. Texas returns to the district court, after a split decision in the Supreme Court, these arguments will continue to receive considerable attention in the U.S. presidential race.