Sun, Oct 05, 2014 - Page 7 News List

Panama winding down program for eased immigration

AP, PANAMA CITY

A program that helped tens of thousands of foreigners get permission to live and work in Panama entered its final days on Friday with the opening of the last of the immigration fairs that have roused nationalist sentiment in the small Central American nation.

Long lines of people filed into a gymnasium in the capital where officials were processing applications under a program known as the “melting pot of the races.” The fair is to run through today and the government of new Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela says there are to be no more.

The program, launched in 2010, temporarily eases requirements for those seeking to live and work for several years in a nation of 3.5 million people with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

It eliminates normal, time-consuming immigration requirements and asks applicants only to show that they have been in the nation for a year and have no trouble with the law. They get a two year or 10-year residence and work permit

Some US and Canadian citizens have applied, but most of the 48,000 visas granted in earlier immigration fairs went to Colombians, Nicaraguans, Dominicans and Venezuelans, including hotel and restaurant workers and some street vendors.

Backers say that the measure boosts the economy and improves security by ensuring foreigners have clean records, adding that few of those granted permits have been later arrested for crimes.

The fairs have roused increasing opposition, often based on fears of competition for jobs, which has spawned professional and youth groups united under slogans such as “Panama for Panamanians” and “United for Panama.”

The nation’s main business groups have said attacks on the program border on xenophobia, an allegation most critics reject.

“We have never been opposed to foreigners, nor are we xenophobic. That is a lie,” said Omayra Avendano, a member of the Soy Panama coalition that has fought the program.

She said Panamanians have long lived in harmony with other nationalities, “but what has come with the fair from the start is total disorder. They are not taking account of public opinion, of the feelings of Panamanians.”

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