New Panamanian President Jose Raul Mulino waves before giving a...

New Panamanian President Jose Raul Mulino waves before giving a speech at his swearing-in ceremony at the Atlapa Convention Centre in Panama City, Monday, July 1, 2024. Credit: AP/Matias Delacroix

WASHINGTON — The United States is going to pay for flights and offer other help to Panama to remove migrants under an agreement signed Monday, as the Central American country's new president has vowed to shut down the treacherous Darien Gap used by people traveling north to the United States.

The memorandum of understanding was signed during an official visit headed by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to Panama for the inauguration Monday of José Raúl Mulino, the country's new president.

The deal is “designed to jointly reduce the number of migrants being cruelly smuggled through the Darien, usually en route to the United States," National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement.

The efforts to send some migrants back to their homelands “will help deter irregular migration in the region and at our southern border, and halt the enrichment of malign smuggling networks that prey on vulnerable migrants,” she said.

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

Shortly after Mulino’s inauguration, the Panamanian government released a statement saying Mayorkas had signed an agreement with Panama’s Foreign Affairs Minister Javier Martínez-Acha in which the U.S. government committed to covering the cost of repatriation of migrants who enter Panama illegally through the Darien.

The agreement said the U.S. would support Panama with equipment, transportation and logistics to send migrants caught illegally entering Panama back to their countries, according to Panama.

Mulino, the country’s 65-year-old former security minister and new president, has promised to shut down migration through the jungle-clad and largely lawless border.

“I won’t allow Panama to be an open path for thousands of people who enter our country illegally, supported by an international organization related to drug trafficking and human trafficking,” Mulino said during his inauguration speech.

Under the terms of the agreement, U.S. Homeland Security teams on the ground in Panama would help the government there train personnel and build up its own expertise and ability to determine which migrants, under Panama's immigration laws, could be removed from the country, according to two senior administration officials.

They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to give details of the agreement that had not yet been made public.

For those migrants who are to be removed, the U.S. also would pay for charter flights or commercial airplane tickets for them to return to their home countries. The officials didn't specify how much money the U.S. would contribute overall to those flights or which countries the migrants would be removed to.

The officials said the U.S. would be giving assistance and expertise on how to conduct removals, including helping Panama officials screen migrants who might qualify for protections. But the U.S. is not deciding whom to deport, the officials said.

The program would be entirely under Panama's control, aligning with the country's immigration laws, and the decisions would be made by that government, the U.S. officials said. They added that Panama already has a repatriation program but that it's limited.

The agreement comes as Panama's Darien Gap has become a superhighway of sorts for migrants from across the Southern Hemisphere and beyond who are trying to make it to the United States. The Darien Gap connects Panama and Colombia to the south.

More than half a million people traversed the corridor last year and more than 190,000 people have crossed so far in 2024, with most of the migrants hailing from Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia and China.

The agreement comes as the Biden administration has been struggling to show voters during an election year that it has a handle on immigration and border security. Former President Donald Trump, who's made immigration a key election year issue, has starkly criticized Biden, saying he's responsible for the problems at the border.

In early June President Joe Biden announced a new measure to cut off access to asylum when the number of people arriving at the southern border reaches a certain number. Homeland Security officials have credited those restrictions with cutting the number of people encountered by Border Patrol by 40% since they were enacted.

The administration has also moved to allow certain U.S. citizens’ spouses without legal status to apply for permanent residency and eventually citizenship without having to first depart the country. The action by Biden, a Democrat, could affect upwards of half a million immigrants.


Juan Zamorano in Panama City contributed to this report.

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