Sep 29, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Next border surge

Panama Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes is seen addressing a conference in Madrid.

Erika Mouynes. Photo: Alejandro Martinez Velez/Europa Press via Getty Images

Panama foreign minister Erika Mouynes expressed frustration to Axios that the Biden administration seemed caught off guard by the Haitian migrant crisis because "we sounded the alarm when we should have."

Why it matters: The worst may still be coming. Mouynes said there are as many as 60,000 migrants — mostly Haitian — poised to make their way north to the U.S.-Mexico border.

  • Panama is expecting more migrants to cross through the dangerous jungles of the Darién Gap this month than in all of 2019 — nearly 27,000, according to Panamanian government estimates provided to Axios.
  • Mouynes is calling on the U.S. to help enforce a plan coordinated with countries in the region, saying, ultimately, "Let's recognize that they all are heading toward the U.S."
  • The foreign minister wrapped up meetings Monday and Tuesday in Washington with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and members of Congress, among others.

Mouynes expressed her exasperation to Axios after spending months warning leaders across the hemisphere of the impeding Haitian wave.

  • "We've engaged with every single authority that we can think of, that we can come across, to say, 'Please, let's pay attention to this,'" Mouynes said.
  • A Homeland Security spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

By the numbers: More than 85,000 migrants have passed through Panama since January — most of them Haitians.

  • Roughly 20,000 to 25,000 Haitians have already made the trek to the U.S.-Mexico border, with most being allowed to enter the United States.
  • Beyond those already admitted or deported back to Haiti, another 60,000 are most likely still on their way north, the minister said.

The big picture: Panama is often the first country to provide medical help, food and shelter to northbound migrants — despite their travels through multiple South American countries like Colombia and Peru.

  • "When we receive them on the Panamanian side, they're malnourished. The children are in terrible condition, so even getting them up to a healthy state takes time," the minister said.

Panama and its neighbors are already working on solutions.

  • In August, top immigration officials and attorneys general from South American governments, Mexico, Canada and the U.S. met to discuss the issue of irregular migration.
  • It was the first time such a high-level discussion had occurred, which was "shocking" to Mouynes.
  • In task force meetings that month, Latin American officials developed a plan to prevent charter planes from landing in countries with migrants and to impose quotas at borders to maintain manageable numbers of migrants in transit countries.
  • "If you can control migration, you can support it," Mouynes said.

Panama has a quota system with Costa Rica and has started one with Colombia. It "needs to turn back toward their other neighbors — to Peru, to Brazil" — to set up similar systems.

  • Colombia is currently holding back 30,000 migrants who want to cross into Panama and has become "frustrated" Panama can not take more in, the minister said.

What they're saying: "We all have a role to play in this issue, and the regional approach is the correct approach," Mouynes said. "It is impossible for Panama to solve it on its own."

  • She wants Mayorkas or a similar very high level official to attend a follow-up meeting with cabinet-level leaders from the region — to show commitment and pressure nations to follow through on migration plans.
  • There needs to be better engagement with Haiti, as well, rather than pretending the situation will solve on its own, Mouynes said.

What to watch: Pro-migration messaging from the U.S. and some South American nations has played a role in the uptick in people moving north.

  • It's unclear whether the Biden administration's recent emphasis on deportations of thousands of Haitians, and Mayorkas' own warnings about not being admitted to the United States, will change anything.
  • Mouynes said Mayorkas asked for her assessment of that messaging during their meeting this week.
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