Panama’s foreign minister has warned that another wave of some 60,000 migrants, mostly Haitian nationals, is now headed toward the southern US border.
Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes expressed exasperation during a visit to Washington DC this week, saying that Panama has been warning the Biden administration for months about the recent surge in irregular migration.
‘We sounded the alarm when we should have,’ Mouynes told Axios. ‘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.”‘
In recent weeks, shocking scenes of human misery emerged from a squalid migrant camp near the border in Texas, which swelled to 15,000 at the height of the crisis, as the unprepared Border Patrol scrambled to stem the flow of illegal crossings.
Most of the Haitian migrants had been living in South American countries like Chile for years, but headed toward the US when they learned that President Joe Biden was halting deportations of Haitian nationals already in the country.
Traveling by land from South America, they must pass through the isthmus country of Panama, with many making the trek through the treacherous jungles of the Darien Gap.
Panama Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes expressed exasperation during a visit to Washington DC this week, saying that Panama has been warning the Biden administration for months about the recent surge in irregular migration
Haitian migrants rest as they cross the jungle of the Darien Gap, near Acandi, Choco department, Colombia, heading to Panama on Monday, on their way trying to reach the US
Haitian migrants cross the Guati River during their transfer to a camp where they will sleep to start their journey to the Darien Gap, in Acandi, Colombia, on Tuesday
Most of the Haitian migrants headed for the US are actually coming from Chile and Brazil, where they have been living for years as refugees following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti. They must pass through the Darien Gap in Panama
Panama is expecting 27,000 more migrants to cross through the Darien Gap this month, more than were encountered in all of 2019.
‘Let’s recognize that they all are heading toward the US,’ said Mouynes, calling on the Biden administration to help enforce a coordinated strategy with countries across the region.
Mouynes said that more than 85,000 migrants have passed through Panama since January, most of them Haitians.
Roughly 20,000 to 25,000 Haitians have already reached the U.S.-Mexico border, with most being allowed to enter the United States. That leaves another 60,000 are most likely still on their way north, the minister said.
Panama is usually the first country to provide migrants humanitarian and medical assistance as they make their way north, Mouynes said.
‘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.
Meanwhile, some 16,000 migrants are stuck in the northern Colombian beach town of Necocli, awaiting their turn on limited boat transport toward the Darien Gap, where smugglers guide groups through one of the most dangerous and impassable regions of Latin America.
The journey can be deadly. On Thursday, Panamanian officials buried a group of migrants who perished in the jungle, using a bulldozer to cover the mass grave.
A priest attends the burial of a group of migrants who died trying to cross the Darien gap, at the Guayabillo cemetery in Agua Fria, Panama on Thursday, highlighting the deadly dangers of the treacherous jungle trek
A bulldozer dumps dirt a group of migrants who died trying to cross the Darien gap, at the Guayabillo cemetery in Panama
Haitian migrants are sprayed with a disinfectant as they leave the pier and then move to a camp where they will sleep to start their journey to the Darien Gap in Colombia on Wednesday
Haitian migrants cross the Guati River during their transfer to a camp where they will launch their trek into the Darien Gap
Colombia and Panama agreed last month that 500 migrants could cross per day, but local officials have repeatedly urged them to raise the quota, saying it is far too low to keep pace with the up to 1,500 migrants who arrive in town daily.
Panama’s President Laurentino Cortizo told the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday that more than 80,000 irregular migrants have traveled through Panama this year. He called for international assistance, saying his country is spending its limited budget on migrant care.
So far this year, 88,514 migrants have entered Panama through the Darien jungle, according to figures from the National Migration Service, and Panama went from receiving an average of 800 migrants in January to 30,000 in August.
US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas reportedly asked his officials whether the department was ready to handle the possibility of up to 400,000 migrants, nearly double the 21-year high seen in July, crossing the southern border in October.
Despite public attempts to appear in control of the situation at the southwest border, a phone call between Mayorkas and senior officials earlier this week shows a Biden administration scrambling to contain a growing crisis.
Mayorkas asked on the call if the border was ready for a worst-case scenario of 350,000 to 400,000 migrants crossing the border next month, two DHS officials told NBC.
Even the lower estimate would be record breaking, but 400,000 border crossings is nearly double the 21-year high hit in July of 210,000. August saw more than 208,000 encounters at the southwestern border.
Haitian migrants arrive at a jetty in Colombia as they prepare to start their journey to the Darien Gap on Wednesday
October’s border surge could potentially shatter records already set for border crossings this year
The officials said the estimates weren’t based on internal intelligence. Instead Mayorkas and others within DHS are worried about a spike in migrants crossing the border if a court-ordered repeal of the Title 42 expulsion policy takes effect today.
Title 42 is a Trump-era Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order that enables any border officer to immediately turn asylum-seekers away during the pandemic regardless of their status.
The Biden administration has rolled back its enforcement of the policy somewhat to allow exceptions for unaccompanied minors and some families with young children.
But immigrant advocacy groups and some of Biden’s fellow Democrats are outraged at the White House’s continued enforcement and defense of the rule.
DHS is concerned that with Title 42 gone, however, migrants may misinterpret the shift to mean the border is wide open even as Mayorkas himself insisted last week ‘our borders are closed’ during a contentious Senate hearing.
US District Judge Emmet Sullivan gave the White House 14 days to comply with a September 16 ruling that decided the Trump administration’s policy didn’t give Biden the authority to block migrants seeking asylum.
Sullivan issued the order after advocacy groups sued the White House.
The administration appealed the ruling but so far the US Court of Appeals has not moved to stop it from expiring.
Biden considered lifting Title 42 in July but officials issued a dire warning: ‘We could have a rush at the border. It would be catastrophic.’
The officials who revealed the Mayorkas call said Customs and Border Protection has been given no guidance on what to do when Title 42 ends.
Meanwhile a new caravan of more than ‘15,000 migrants led by smugglers’ is in Mexico and headed for the US border, according to a letter sent to President Biden from Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Marsha Blackburn on Thursday.
The GOP lawmakers say they and thousands of other migrants who have crossed the border this year ‘are emboldened’ by Biden’s more relaxed policies compared to his predecessor.
‘We call on you to immediately send a clear and concise signal to the massive caravan en route that they must turn around. Smuggling and trafficking should not be tolerated by the United States,’ Graham and Blackburn write.
Senators Lindsey Graham and Marsha Blackburn sounded the alarm on the worsening border crisis, urging President Biden in a Thursday letter to ‘send a clear message’ to a caravan of 15,000 migrants reportedly headed toward the border
‘We cannot continue to surrender our southern border to drug cartels and coyotes. An open border like ours is a green light to those who see human life as a commodity.’
Biden’s ‘continued capitulation constitutes an unconscionable threat to our national security,’ they claim.
They end the impassioned letter with another direct appeal to the president to tell the caravan to ‘turn around,’ adding that ‘failure to do so would be patently reckless.’
It comes the same day Mayorkas issued extensive new guidelines on deportations to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
In a seven-page memo, the DHS chief instructs ICE officers to use discretion and determine whether an undocumented immigrant ‘poses a current threat to public safety’ in deciding whether to deport them.
Mayorkas privately expressed concern over whether the Department of Homeland Security could handle the border surge
‘The fact that an individual is a removable noncitizen should not alone be the basis of an enforcement action against them. We focus our resources because they are limited, and because of our dedication to doing justice,’ Mayorkas wrote.
It comes after a week that saw more than 25,000 Haitian migrants arrive in the border city of Del Rio, Texas, quickly overwhelming local officials there.
Border officials worked to quickly clear them out from an encampment under a bridge where many of the thousands had settled.
Mayorkas told the Washington Post that removing a farmworker ‘breaking his or her back to pick fruit that we all put on our tables’ would undoubtedly take resources away from apprehending someone who poses a public threat.
Others he instructed ICE to pass over are the elderly and migrants who speak out at public demonstrations, according to the memo obtained by the same outlet.
It leaves little room for ICE to deport anyone other than violent criminals.
For migrants who’ve been apprehended by ICE and have committed crimes, Mayorkas said agents should consider a broad range of factors: How serious their offense was, whether they used a weapon, past criminal history and even when they arrived in the US or have a mental condition.
He also wants them to look at how the deportation would affect the person’s family.
However, Mayorkas is also giving them more room to weigh all the information for themselves. He’s overwritten temporary guidance issued in February that requires ICE supervisors to approve of some deportation cases to ensure agency compliance.
On Wednesday, Mayorkas’ department tried to put an end to former President Donald Trump ‘s so-called ‘Remain in Mexico ‘ policy combatting illegal immigration after a federal judge ruled last month that the move to end the program was unlawful.
DHS released a statement Wednesday announcing its intent to issue a memorandum terminating the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as the ‘Remain in Mexico’ program.
The order, according to the statement, will come in the next few weeks.
‘A new memorandum terminating MPP will not take effect until the current injunction is lifted by court order,’ the DHS press release reads. ‘In issuing a new memorandum terminating MPP, the Department intends to address the concerns raised by the courts with respect to the prior memorandum.’
In June 2021, DHS issued a memorandum terminating the MPP that a Texas district court ruled in August violated the law and issued an order requiring the agency to restart the Trump-era program.
In another blow to the Biden administration’s attempt to shut down the program, the Supreme Court in August rejected the Justice Department’s request to put the policy on hold while litigation over Biden’s efforts to rescind the policy was resolved in the courts.