The Costa Rican and Panamanian Versions of Catch-and-Release, Courtesy of U.S. Taxpayers

By Dan Cadman on January 4, 2019

My colleague David North, keying on several recent posts by Todd Bensman, another colleague here at the Center (see here, here, and here), has posted a blog suggesting some ideas that might be used to better assist Mexico and Central American nations in turning back the flood of north-bound migrants headed for our southern border.

Within his blog, in the subheading, "Proposal for Central America", North says this:

Let's take a leaf from the European precedent regarding migrants from Syria, and strike formal deals with the Central American nations, as Europe has with Turkey. In this case, we would simply work out financial arrangements with the nations of Panama, Costa Rica, and perhaps others to cause those SIAs and other non-Central Americans who seek to use their countries on their way to the United States illegally to be identified and shipped home at U.S. expense. [Emphasis added.]

He's right. In fact, I've been wondering why this hasn't been done already. As Bensman makes clear, the United States is already providing both of those nations substantial funding for interdicting these aliens, holding them in detention long enough to take biometric and biographic data that is shared and can be added to U.S. databases and also scrubbed against our terrorism and national security information in advance of their arrival ... and then letting them go by the simple expedient of granting temporary travel permits to move through and out of those countries on their way north.

While certainly there is value in having that data, is it worth the money? I think not. Why would we not go the further step of ensuring that these aliens never reach our southern border?

I know from personal past experience that such steps can be undertaken. I was part of a team sent to Guatemala in December 1999 when the Coast Guard interdicted a barely seaworthy vessel, the Wing Fung Lung, smuggling hundreds of Chinese nationals under conditions reminiscent of a slave ship. They were landed and detained courtesy of the Guatemalan government, but at U.S. expense, in the confines of a Guatemalan naval base. There, they were interviewed by my team and most (with the exception of a few legitimate claimants to refugee status and, notably, a few of the crew who were extradited to face criminal smuggling charges in the United States) were ultimately repatriated to their home country.

And that is only one example of many that might be cited as evidence that the strategy works.

What happened in Guatemala was not cheap; on the other hand, detention and removal of aliens who make it across our distressingly porous border is no cheap proposition either. What's more, the message sent to other potential aliens thinking of making the trek is invaluable. And of course, what is it worth to interdict and disrupt a potential national security or terrorism threat through such means?

I don't know exactly how much Panama and Costa Rica are paid for these current stop-gap measures; it's not easily discernable. But according to the Christian Science Monitor, the United States has provided over $2.7 billion in aid to Costa Rica, although with increasing prosperity that figure is significantly smaller now. Ironically, some in Costa Rica seem to exhibit a certain resentment at having graduated out of this foreign aid safety net that, it would seem, came to be expected as a given.

As for Panama, the Congressional Research Service has provided some facts and figures relating to foreign aid that amount to a few million per year. It's also worth remembering that the United States spent billions of dollars in maintenance and improvement of the Panama Canal, which it rendered to Panama gratis in 1999.

So the question begs to be asked: Are we getting good value for money if the only thing that the Costa Rican and Panamanian governments are doing is temporarily waylaying these individuals — many of whom are special interest aliens who constitute a significant reason for concern to U.S. officials — and then, in fact, acting as surrogate smugglers by fostering their further movement northward simply to ensure they are expelled from their own sovereign territory?

I think the answer is self-evident.