Eyes on Panama as incoming president promises illegal immigration crackdown in move helping US

Mulino's chances of success are dubious, according to some experts.

Published: June 2, 2024 10:58pm

Panama's president-elect, José Raúl Mulino, pledged to crack down on illegal immigration by closing the infamous "Darien Gap" migrant passageway to South America, in a move that is expected to benefit the U.S.

Mulino, who is set to be inaugurated as president and prime minister of Panama on July 1, previously served in high-ranking governmental positions, including as the Minister of Public Security and the Minister of Government and Justice.

"The border of the United States, instead of being in Texas, moved to Panama," Mulino said on the campaign trail in April, according to The Guardian. "We’re going to close the Darien and we’re going to repatriate all these people."

The Darien Gap, which connects southern Panama to northern Colombia and the rest of South America, is a migrant passageway through dense jungle terrain. More than 520,000 people made the dangerous trek in 2023, according to statistics from the Panamanian government.

Mulino has reiterated his hardline stance against illegal immigration on multiple occasions. For example, last month he said that people in South America "need to know that whoever arrives here is going to be sent back to their country of origin," and that the "Darien is not a transit route, no sir. It is our border," according to France 24.

For decades, fewer than 20,000 people a year dared to make the journey through the Darien, according to the conservative Center for Immigration Studies. During President Joe Biden's first year in office, that number jumped to 130,000. In 2022, it almost doubled to nearly 250,000. The United Nations estimates that 800,000 people may cross the Darien by the end of 2024. 

The Trump-aligned America First Policy Institute said last month that Mulino's election "reflects a desire to have secure borders and a rejection of unchecked illegal migration."

Notably, however, Center for Immigration Studies Senior National Security Fellow Todd Bensman wrote in an analysis last week that he expects Mulino's plan to be well-intentioned but unsuccessful. 

Michael Yon, a war correspondent who has spent the past two years living in and reporting on the Darien Gap, said that Mulino will receive pushback against his plan from the government of Columbia, the United Nations and other non-governmental organizations, pro-open border parts of the U.S. government and the media.

"They’ll hit him hardcore in the press. They’ll show kids dying in the jungle," Yon said.

Others, such as Center for a Free Society National Security expert Joseph Humire predicted that Mulino will be falsely accused of human rights violations if he tries to close the border. 

If Mulino withstands the pressure and institutes the migration plan as soon as he enters office, he may actually benefit Biden's chance of reelection this November, as illegal immigration would decrease in the months leading up to the election.

Follow Madeleine Hubbard on X or Instagram.

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