Come One, Come All—Panama’s Borders Are Wide Open
Panama‘s President Ricardo Martinelli enjoyed approval ratings as high as 85% during his first months in office, back in 2009/2010. Today he’s more a controversial figure than a beloved one. Current approval ratings say that less than half (maybe 40%) of Panamanians are happy with the job he’s doing. Martinelli is a big, blustery, take-no-prisoners kind of a guy who makes a habit of pushing the envelope and, sometimes, crossing the line. I hear the complaints about him, from friends, staff, business people we work with here in Panama. No question, Martinelli has made enemies.
But I’ve got to give it to him. Once he identifies a problem that he thinks could get in the way of his reaching his objectives, Martinelli takes action. Not mañana. Now.
One of Martinelli’s biggest problems right now is a limited workforce. His little country doesn’t have enough educated, trained, qualified, English-speaking labor to go around. Panama has been attracting foreign investors and entrepreneurs, big and small, in ever-growing numbers, for the past half-dozen years at least. The country has made it very appealing to do business here, and more foreign businesspeople are taking notice of this fact all the time. Now these business folks are noticing something else–the job market is getting competitive. Salaries are rising, and, often, even if you’re willing to pay top dollar, you can’t find the staff you need for the job you’re trying to get done. I speak from experience.
Martinelli realized that, if he didn’t do something about this quick, the legacy-level agenda he’s been pursuing since the day he took office would be at risk. The long-term solution is education. Panama must train up her own sons and daughters to continue to fuel the country’s growth. And efforts to that end are under way. But that takes time. Meantime, where are all the foreign businesses basing themselves here going to get the labor they need today? Martinelli recognized that the only possible solution would be to import it.
Panama offers a dozen or more options for foreigners interested in establishing residency in this country, but they all take time and require various applications and renewals. Plus, none of them translates to a work permit. (The pensionado visa, for example, specifically restricts holders from taking a job.) Meantime, this country’s immigration department is overwhelmed. Processes that should take weeks take months, and processes that should take months can take years. The status-quo wasn’t going to cut it, Martinelli recognized.
So he took bold action. He woke up one morning and decreed a new residency option, the “Specific Countries” visa. That was in May. In the less than five months since, the decree has been modified several times, because, frankly, it just wasn’t thought through at the start. At first, the countries on the list numbered 22. The list was quickly revised to include 24 countries. In the past week or so it has been revised again and now includes 47 countries. If you hold a passport to any one of these, you, your spouse, your parents, your children under age 18, your children with disabilities, and your children aged 18 to 25 who are single and registered at university can all claim residency. And not temporary residency requiring a series of renewals, as with most visas, but permanent residency immediately.
Plus: You can also get a work permit. Now we’re talkin’.
Except, wait. There’s more. Within the past two weeks it seems another new permanent residency category has been enacted in this country, this one for professionals. To qualify, you must be coming to Panama to practice a profession that is not restricted to Panamanians only (such as the liberal professions) and you must produce an authenticated diploma from an accredited university showing at least a bachelor’s degree. (This new “Professionals Residency,” unlike the “Specific Countries” residency, does require the usual two applications.)
For the past month, we’ve been working on a report on these new residency and work permit options, to send to Panama Circle members and Panama Letter subscribers, but we can’t finish it. Every time we think it’s ready for production and fulfillment, we learn of new changes…or of whole new programs. We’ve had to stop the virtual presses three times. Friday, my Editorial Assistant David sent me this e-mail:
“I am sorry to report that I have nothing definite on the newest residency category, and, so, we can’t finalize our report this week. I’ve searched in English and Spanish for news, and there’s nothing. Not even on the government’s website. At this point, it seems that it’s in the pipeline, but I don’t think it’s been officially announced. Only certain attorneys, including the one I use are aware of it. I’ve scheduled a meeting with my lawyer in her office next week so that I can get all the details and update our report in full.”
That’s how Martinelli is providing the educated, qualified, professional labor his country needs in a hurry. He’s inviting professionals from around the world to come join the party.
However, Panama has another employment need, as well, for non-professionals. People to be maids, drivers, waitstaff, cooks, laborers… Neither is this shortage lost on Martinelli.
In fact, he seems to have observed, looking around his country, that loads of folks fitting those descriptions exist here already. Loads of folks who could fill those kinds of positions…but who can’t get jobs, at least not legally. Not only can these folks not legally fill the positions that are standing empty, but the government spends a lot of time harassing them about their immigration and employment status.
Panama is home to a sizable illegal alien population, many of whom do work, when they can, off the books, but who worry all the time about being deported back home to Colombia, Venezuela, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, etc. These good folks want only to earn a living, to take care of their children, to send money back to their families. Panama, especially Panama City, is the region’s land of opportunity, and thousands and thousands hailing from less prosperous parts of the region have made their way here in search of a chance.
Why not let them all stay, Martinelli seems to have wondered to himself? Why not make them legal, allow them to work, let them call Panama home without worry…and subscribe them to the tax roles? Instead of spending time and money to track and deport them, give them the legal right to live and work here. Let them fill jobs…and let them pay into the public coffers. Then, instead of costing the country money, they’d become a source of revenue!
So Martinelli has allowed a series of amnesty programs. I won’t attempt to describe or detail them, because I can’t follow any of the particulars and all the particulars seem to change all the time. Bottom line, these windows of amnesty seem to amount to masses of folks with no legal status showing up at specified immigration offices on specified days and waiting. Not in line, but en masse.
“Half of Panama was there…or more!”
That’s how a friend described it, a friend who finds herself in the position of needing to be normalized. She, along with many thousands of others, stood outside the immigration office starting at 3 a.m. one morning last week. She was among the fortunate who managed to meet with an immigration official before the office closed for the day at 5 p.m. She got her residency permit and is now a legal Panamanian resident. However, she ran out of time for her work permit. She awaits a callback, another chance to wait outside the appointed office in the wee hours hoping to get in and processed before the close of business. And she’s very happy to have the chance to do it.