DHS Announces Agreement to Stem Illegal Darien Gap Migration

No details, but expect it to cost taxpayers hundreds of millions in foreign aid and public benefits

By Andrew R. Arthur on April 12, 2023

DHS published a “Trilateral Joint Statement” yesterday with Panama and Colombia detailing an agreement between the three countries to stem illegal migration through the notorious “Darien Gap”. It’s questionable whether their efforts will succeed, but regardless U.S. taxpayers will be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid and public benefits.

The Darien Gap. I’ve never personally been to the Darien Gap, but my colleague Todd Bensman has spent extended periods there as part of the Center’s in-country investigations of illegal migration to the United States. He has described the gap as a “notoriously untamed ... jungle passage between Colombia and Panama”, through which “a record 10,000 extra-continental migrants from around the world poured” in the month of May 2021 alone.

The UN has reported that 133,000 migrants crossed through the gap in 2021, and nearly twice as many (almost 250,000) in FY 2022. Those are records, but they likely won’t stand for long because according to the Wall Street Journal in March, “49,291 people from as near as Haiti and as far away as China have crossed the Darien” in January and February alone.

Most, if not all, of those migrants were on their way to the Southwestern border of the United States, drawn by the Biden’s administration’s migrant “catch and release” policies.

Illegal migration through the gap has inflicted a toll on both the migrants themselves and on residents there.

In December 2021, Francisco Agapi — leader of the Embera tribe and mayor of Cémaco, Panama, a town near the gap — came to Washington for a panel discussion on that toll hosted by the Center, also featuring Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Wisc.) and war correspondent Michael Yon. As Bensman later explained:

During the panel and later to several Republican members of Congress, Mayor Agapi expressed puzzlement as to why human rights groups that protect indigenous tribes — and a Panamanian government interested only in moving [migrants] into the next country — have forsaken his tribe’s new problems in favor of facilitating the historic migrant tide he believes is causing them.


Food insecurity has spiked not just because thousands of hungry migrants are taking the harvests. With so much easy money coming in for transporting and guiding the migrants, many Embera men have abandoned their duties to plant new crops for these new endeavors, or to hunt and fish.


Of primary concern to Mayor Agapi is the corrupting influence of cash the migrants offer the Embera for guiding and transportation services, previously unimaginable sudden relative wealth that most young people are ill-equipped to manage.

“The problem is that, honestly, the immigrants bring money with them,” he said. “That’s the source of the problems.”

Those migrants, who have trusted their lives to rapacious, criminal smugglers, haven’t had an easy go of it, either. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in a recent report on abuses of migrants:

In Central America, the journeys through the Darien Gap are particularly dangerous. In the course of their journeys through the Gap, migrants often lack access to safe water, endure significant exposure to natural hazards and dangerous animals, while also enduring robbery, abuse and exploitation, not only at the hands of smugglers, but also by local guides, residents, and law enforcement officials.

Last February, Bensman reported on a family of Haitian migrants (a mother, identified as “Jeudy B.”, and her two teenage children, Madeisy and Michael), he encountered on the migrant trail from South America, explaining that for them:

The hardest part of the journey was the Darien Gap. They were accosted by a gang of thugs in the jungle who threatened them with guns while others dragged some of the women in their group into the bush to rape them. Jeudy’s daughter Madeisy was 16, and one of the thugs took hold of her arm, intending to have his way with her. Madeisy told him she was a virgin and he should not touch her so. He just laughed and said he’d do with her as he wished. The only thing that saved her was when Jeudy produced a set of expensive gold earrings and offered them to the man if he’d let her daughter go.

The “Trilateral Joint Statement”. Which brings me to the Trilateral Joint Statement. In it, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Panamanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Janaina Tewaney, and Colombian Minister of Foreign Affairs Álvaro Leyva Durán assert that their respective governments plan to embark on a “sixty-day campaign” during which they “will seek to achieve the following ambitious goals” to stem the flow of migrants through the gap:

  1. End the illicit movement of people and goods through the Darién by both land and maritime corridors, which leads to death and exploitation of vulnerable people for significant profit.
  2. Open new lawful and flexible pathways for tens of thousands of migrants and refugees as an alternative to irregular migration.
  3. Launch a plan to reduce poverty, improve public service delivery, create jobs, and promote economic and sustainable opportunities in border communities in northern Colombia and southern Panamá, through international partnerships across financial institutions, civil society, and the private sector.

The first goal raises the question of why, exactly, the United States, Panama, and Colombia have waited until April 2023 to try to address what they themselves describe as “the serious humanitarian situation in the Darién”. It didn’t start last month, as Bensman reveals.

And that goal leads to the next question: How exactly the three governments plan to “end the illicit movement of people” through the gap. That statement is strong on lofty rhetoric, but light as a charlotte russe on concrete action.

Logically, Panama and Colombia will beef up enforcement on their own southern borders to block the smugglers from bringing migrants into the hellhole that is the gap, but if that is their intent, they should say so.

Skipping the second goal for a moment, the three countries also fail to explain how plans “to reduce poverty, improve public service delivery, create jobs, and promote economic and sustainable opportunities” in northern Colombia and southern Panama is going to stem a wave of migrants headed through the gap from “Haiti and as far away as China”.

The only logical connection would be an implicit quid-pro-quo between the United States on the one hand and Panama and Colombia on the other, in which the United States pays for poverty reduction, better public services, job creation, and economic development in the latter two countries in exchange for beefed-up border security on their parts.

Regardless, and respectfully, while economic development in Colombia and Panama should be the responsibilities of the governments in those countries, it’s unfortunately not that unusual for U.S. taxpayers to help finance it.

Although the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) identifies Panama as a “high income country”, the United States nonetheless sent $8.6 million dollars in aid there in 2022.

That was a drop in the bucket compared to Colombia, which by USAID’s reckoning is an “upper middle income country”. In 2022, that country received $380 million in U.S. assistance, including $33.51 million for “government and civil society”.

For that kind of cash, one would expect that the Colombian government would already do more than it is to secure its northern border from U.S.-bound migrants, but I guess more aid will not hurt. Not that it makes the sting of Tax Day any easier.

“New Lawful and Flexible Pathways” for Migration. That won’t be the only cash the American people will be on the hook for, which brings me to the second goal of the three countries, “new lawful and flexible pathways for tens of thousands of migrants and refugees as an alternative to irregular migration”.

Colombia already hosts some 1.8 million Venezuelan refugees (out of a diaspora of six million), but an additional 753,000 Venezuelans left their home country last year. Between the recently departed and those who had been resettled in Colombia who decided to look for better opportunities here, CBP has encountered more than 288,000 Venezuelan nationals at the Southwest border since February 2021.

Venezuelan migration to the United States is a case study in the deleterious effects of Biden’s border policies. The country has been an “economic basket case” for many years, suffering under the increasingly repressive socialist “chavismo” policies of the late President Hugo Chavez (1999-2013) and his vice president and successor, President Nicholas Maduro (2013-present).

Despite the millions of Venezuelans driven out of the country under Chavez and Maduro, large-scale illegal Venezuelan migration to this country only took off once Biden took over.

In FY 2019, even as illegal migration spiked under the Trump administration, Border Patrol agents at the Southwest border apprehended just 2,702 Venezuelan nationals, an admittedly big bump from FY 2018 (62) and FY 2017 (73), but still manageable.

Illegal migration from Venezuela only became unmanageable once Biden took office. CBP encountered more than 2,500 illegal Venezuelan migrants in the month of March 2021 alone, and things haven’t cooled down since.

In fact, during his February State of the Union Address, President Biden lauded his own achievements in slowing Venezuelan migration to the United States — a month in which CBP encountered more than 5,500 Venezuelan nationals at the Southwest border, an almost 81 percent increase over the same month a year before (3,073). Therein lies a tale.

Pulling back the curtain on the president’s border legerdemain and on the second goal in the Trilateral Joint Statement, Border Patrol apprehensions of Venezuelan nationals at the Southwest border did drop in February, to 1,451 from 6,182 in December and 3,065 in February 2021. “Encounters” — the total of Border Patrol apprehensions and aliens deemed inadmissible at the ports of entry — rose, however, because in October, the Biden administration began paroling in thousands of would-be illegal migrant Venezuelans through the ports.

As my colleague Elizabeth Jacobs has explained, the president likely lacks the authority to parole in massive numbers of foreign nationals, but that didn’t stop the administration from expanding that parole program to Nicaraguans, Haitians, and Cubans, too, in January. Twenty states are now suing to end the program (Texas v. DHS), but as the joint statement suggests, it’s now a keystone of the administration’s Southwest border policies.

How many migrants from those four countries are we talking about? According to the White House, 30,000 per month, or up to 360,000 per year — not counting “their immediate family members”, whom DHS explains can come along, too.

That’s more than the total number of illegal entrants apprehended at the Southwest border in FY 2015 (331,000-plus) or in FY 2017 (fewer than 304,000), and they will impose hundreds of millions of dollars in fiscal costs on towns, cities, and states across the nation for years to come (the parole grants are good for two years, but the administration has no plan to force arrivals out thereafter, just one issue in Texas).

Note that no less an authority than the New York Times has asserted, in an April 6 expose complaining about the barriers children of immigrants face in accessing social welfare programs, that “Fully 44 percent of poor children have an immigrant parent,” and “Nearly a fifth of poor children have an undocumented parent.” (It never mentions how many of those kids have no status themselves.)

While I am sympathetic toward those children, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) makes clear that any alien “likely at any time to become a public charge is inadmissible”, expressly to protect the public fisc. That’s a dead letter, at least under this administration.

Plugging the Gap Requires Migrant Deterrence at the Southwest Border. Illegal migration through the Darien gap exposes both the migrants themselves and the residents there to a host of horrors borne of savagery, lawlessness, and corruption. It’s in the interest of the United States and the two countries that share the gap — Panama and Colombia — to stop the migrant surge there.

While the governments of the United States, Panama, and Colombia now have a 60-day plan to slow the migrant flow through the gap, that plan will cost U.S. taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and likely be ineffective. Plugging the Darien gap starts with a strategy to deter illegal migration at our Southwest border — which the Biden administration has thus far rejected. Instead, it now thinks throwing money at the problem will be more effective. It won’t.