The Trump administration is trying to reach a deal with the Panama government that would allow the United States to send asylum seekers from Africa, Asia and elsewhere to Panamanian territory, if those travelers passed through the country en route to U.S. soil.
The “safe third country” accord would primarily apply to the relatively small but growing numbers of “extracontinental” asylum seekers who arrive in South America before heading north into Panama through wild jungles and muddy rivers.
Acting homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan will travel to Panama City on Wednesday to meet with the country’s newly elected president, Laurentino Cortizo, to “discuss regional cooperation to confront irregular migration,” the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement.
The visit is part of the Trump administration’s efforts to secure “safe third country” agreements across the hemisphere that will enable U.S. authorities to reject asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border and send them to other countries willing to offer refuge.
McAleenan reached an accord last month with the Guatemalan government that, if implemented, would allow the United States to ship Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers there. The acting secretary said he is seeking similar deals in Panama, Brazil and El Salvador, part of what he described as a multilateral effort to align asylum policies across the region among “source, transit and destination countries.”
The goal, according to McAleenan, is for those fleeing persecution to find safety in the closest possible place to their home countries, instead of hiring smugglers for the long and dangerous journey to the United States.
A DHS official said Tuesday that McAleenan is not traveling to Panama to negotiate a safe third deal, but to discuss broader security cooperation, as well as cyber and customs issues. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe plans for the trip.
Critics of the effort say the Trump administration is turning its back on the world’s most vulnerable people and long-standing American values of providing a safe harbor, with little concern for security conditions in the other nations where the asylum seekers would go.
Though arrests along the U.S. southern border have dipped in recent months, migration levels remain near their highest point in more than a decade. Officials at the Department of Homeland Security say large numbers of economic migrants are taking advantage of U.S. humanitarian programs to file bogus asylum claims, hoping to gain easy entry to the United States. Asylum filings have surged fivefold since 2014, adding to a backlog of nearly 1 million cases in U.S. immigration courts.
Panama, the narrow isthmus linking the North and South American landmasses, is the hemisphere’s natural transit point – both for cargo ships using its interoceanic canal and for U.S.-bound migrants coming from South America.
Growing numbers of asylum seekers from Congo, Cameroon and other African nations have reached the U.S. border in recent months, typically starting their journeys with a flight to Brazil or Ecuador, according to DHS officials and migration scholars.
Some Indians and Bangladeshis are also using South America as a springboard, and thousands of Haitian migrants have been heading north after spending years working in Brazil and Chile.
McAleenan will visit the jungle areas near the notorious Darien Gap region close to Panama’s border with Colombia, according to DHS, and will join meetings with security ministers from across the region to discuss migration issues.
“The new Panamanian government has been indicating it wants to take a tougher line on migration, so it’s likely there’s fertile ground for conversations on this,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “Obviously, what McAleenan would like to do is stop the flow of Haitians and extracontinental migrants through Panama, making it unlikely that they’ll ever get to U.S. border.”
Unlike Guatemala, which has a homicide rate several times higher than the United States’, or the Mexican border cities where the United States is sending asylum seekers under the “remain in Mexico” policy, Panama is a relatively safe place, Selee noted.
“It’s a country with a relatively low homicide rate and limited violence by organized crime,” he said.
Panama has a relatively functional asylum system as well, unlike some of the other Central American nations the United States is negotiating with. It’s also a country whose national identity is that of a destination for immigrants.
A “safe third country” deal would still be a heavy lift for Panamanian leaders, former diplomats say. Cortizo, a U.S.-educated former agriculture minister, ran as a center-left candidate and won the presidency in May with 33% of the vote.
“I don’t know what President Cortizo is thinking of in terms of what Panama could get from the United States in return for a ‘third safe country’ deal. But I think there would be tremendous political backlash were he to just jump onboard,” said John Feeley, a longtime U.S. diplomat who was ambassador to Panama when he resigned from the Trump administration last year in frustration.
U.S. relations with Panama have been strained since the Central American country cut relations with Taiwan and established ties with China in 2017. After his election, Cortizo said he wanted greater U.S. engagement in Central America, at a time when China has made inroads.
Feeley said it was possible that Panamanian leaders would view a “safe third country” accord as a way to repair some of those ties, but he said the Trump administration will struggle to compete with Beijing.
“What Panama really wants from the United States is foreign direct investment, and the United States does not have the structural mechanisms to do what China does, which is to direct state-owned enterprises to do it,” said Feeley, now a consultant for Univision.
In Guatemala, the deal with the Trump administration is deeply unpopular in polls, and McAleenan visited the country this month to try to assuage fears and assure critics that the United States would not overwhelm the country with asylum seekers needing care.
But the backlash to the deal in Guatemala is likely to make it harder for DHS to get agreements with additional countries, said Roberta Jacobson, a former top U.S. diplomat in Latin America. And she said Trump has not inspired confidence in the region as a reliable partner.
Guatemala agreed to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem last year, she noted. “That was designed to get in good graces with the United States, and it didn’t keep Trump from cutting aid,” Jacobson said.
Trump has frozen nearly $150 million in assistance to Guatemala this year, accusing its government of doing too little to stop emigration. Guatemala’s top court has ruled that the “safe third country” deal must be approved by lawmakers, and Trump has threatened to punish the nation with tariffs and other penalties if the agreement does not go forward.