U.S. will fund deportations from Panama, expanding migrant crackdown

The Biden administration will begin paying for Panama to detain and deport more of the migrants streaming through Central America en route to the United States, the latest White House effort to curb illegal crossings at the southern border, officials said Tuesday.

The $6 million pilot program is the administration’s first attempt to fund deportations in a foreign country. More than 500,000 migrants entered Panama illegally last year, and officials there have appealed to the United States for help, saying Panama lacks the resources to contend with the influx.

In recent years, the Darien Gap region along the Colombia-Panama border has become a human superhighway, as U.S.-bound migrants from around the world follow a treacherous path through the jungle.

“We’re trying to send a clear message to anyone who is looking for protection or economic opportunity: choose legal, orderly, safe paths instead of putting your lives at risk,” Marcela Escobari, a Biden immigration adviser, told reporters during a briefing on the deportation flights.

U.S. officials said the deportation flights will commence in the coming weeks, and they will be conducted by the government of new Panamanian President José Raúl Mulino. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas attended Mulino’s inauguration Monday and finalized the accord, Biden officials said.

“I won’t allow Panama to be an open path for thousands of people who enter our country illegally,” Mulino, a former security official, said during his speech.

Illegal crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border have plunged since early June when President Biden announced emergency measures to block migrants from accessing the U.S. asylum system. The number of migrants crossing into the United States — which has reached record levels in recent years — is currently lower than at any point since Biden took office in 2021, according to the latest government data.

U.S. agents made about 84,000 arrests along the southern border last month, down from 118,000 in May. The drop in illegal crossings was even more precipitous over the past week, according to U.S. officials tracking the numbers, with some recent days slipping to about 2,000 arrests along the entire southern border.

Biden officials are eager to keep border crossings out of the news and avoid giving presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump more ammunition to attack the president’s record before the November election.

The Panama funding announcement comes less than a month before July 28 presidential elections in Venezuela that could bring a new surge of out-migration. Authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro is seeking to extend his 11-year rule, and nearly 8 million Venezuelans have left their homeland during that time, creating one of the largest displaced populations in the world, according to U.N. statistics.

Record numbers of those Venezuelans have reached the United States since 2021. U.S. border officials have encountered more than 700,000 Venezuelan migrants during that period, and millions of others have fled to Colombia, Peru and other South American nations.

Tensions with the Maduro government have made it all but impossible for U.S. authorities to send deportation flights to Venezuela in recent months. Panama does not face those same limitations. U.S. officials said the flights from Panama would not target a specific nationality.

The Venezuelan government and the Biden administration are planning to restart diplomatic talks Wednesday. The two countries are expected to discuss the resumption of U.S. deportation flights to Venezuela, along with the upcoming elections and the release of political prisoners, according to two people familiar with the agenda who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive negotiations. Qatar is brokering the meetings.

Biden officials insisted the Panama funding is part of broader hemisphere-wide cooperation among nations contending with record numbers of migrants entering their territory.

“Irregular migration is a regional challenge that requires a regional response,” Mayorkas said in a statement.

The Biden administration cited the 2022 Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection as the framework used for nearly two dozen western hemisphere nations “to promote stability, expand lawful pathways and provide individuals with options to stay where they are, and humanely manage borders throughout the Americas.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced separately that U.S. authorities last weekend completed their first large deportation flight to China since 2018. The flight, carrying 110 deportees, was arranged in cooperation with Chinese authorities, the Department of Homeland Security said.

More than 50,000 Chinese migrants have been intercepted along the Mexico border since the start of 2023, statistics show.

Immigrant advocacy groups have increasingly condemned Biden’s more restrictive approach at the southern border, as well as the boost in deportations. They say the president’s crackdown has dramatically increased the risk that vulnerable migrants could be deported to nations where they will face persecution or harm.

Biden officials say they have done more than any recent U.S. administration to expand opportunities for migrants to reach the United States legally, including new programs to screen and admit roughly 75,000 migrants per month.

Samantha Schmidt in Bogotá, Colombia, and Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.

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