Recently, I was at a party in the States and found myself making small talk with a wide variety of interesting people.
Waiters moved seamlessly with small trays of appetizers and bottles of wine ready to pour, complete with small cloths draped perfectly over the non-dominate arm. Explaining I lived in Panama with an Aussie accent was good for at least ten solid minutes of discussion, but the discussion didn’t end with me. Many of the guests wanted to know more than just how I landed in Panama.
A woman, who appeared to be in her mid-50s, was especially interested in striking up a conversation. “I teach English as a second language,” she began as she moved closer to me. “I’m sure we’ll get some Panamanians, but we haven’t had any so far. A lot of Guatemalans and people from Honduras,” she continued, looking at me for a response. “With the Panamanians, what should I know about their background?”
I appreciated her interest in addressing the whole child who would need to know English, as well as other useful skills, to survive living in the United States as an immigrant. I also knew I needed to correct what she must think of Panamanians. “You most likely won’t have anyone from Panama,” I said with a smile. The woman looked at me as if she was judging whether or not I must be mistaken. “Why won’t we see Panamanians?” she asked pleasantly. A couple of others joined the conversation.
Panamanians Aren’t Seeking Asylum
“Panamanians aren’t seeking asylum. We live in a democracy, have good schools dedicated to teaching English as a regular part of the curriculum, a solid middle class and many social programs for anyone suffering misfortune. We also don’t have as many drug problems as you would find here,” I said referring to the United States. “And certainly not as many drug issues as you would find in Mexico. Panama City is clean, the water system is superior, the transportation is exceptional and there are enough jobs for everyone who needs to work.”
“Really”, she responded as she took a sip of a lovely looking cabernet. “But, I thought the people seeking asylum were coming from Central America. That they were escaping rampant violence and starvation.”
Misconceptions Exist About Panama
I wanted to be careful because these were educated people. No mistakes. I was standing in a beautiful home in a pleasant Midwestern neighborhood. They were obviously well read but basic misconceptions still existed. “Those seeking asylum are individuals who are in fear because of their personal situation in their home country. Religious persecution, threats from drug cartels—that sort of situation. They fear for their lives and those of their families. That simply does not exist in Panama,” I continued.
I smiled, making sure everyone knew I was not offended or making any judgement. “If you flew into Panama City today, not knowing where you were landing, you probably would not guess it was in Central America. While Mexico has lovely sections where people are safe and flourishing, there are also areas of extreme danger with rampant murders and drug influence. People don’t blink when someone is murdered. They want better for their children, for themselves. Panama City does not have that kind of violence. Our skyline is filled with skyscrapers, well-maintained roads and people generally don’t fear walking about at night. Panamanians don’t want to leave Panama because of violence. Panama is a very safe country.”
She looked back at me and smiled. “Well then, I won’t be looking for any Panamanians showing up in my English class,” she continued while tipping her glass toward me.
Not Completely Different Than In The United States
An older gentleman inched forward perceptively, “If no one is leaving Panama, why aren’t people walking to your borders like they are in the United States?”
“Actually, Panama is experiencing some of the same challenges with immigrants as the United States and I guess other countries like Germany and Greece. We have a lot of people wanting to come to Panama. Especially from Venezuela where, right now, people don’t have enough to eat. Colombia is next door, but it’s not a good landing spot for the Venezuelans because the Colombian economy isn’t strong. Panama is the next logical place. We speak their language, many of the individuals seeking work in Panama have immigrated several times, continually looking for something better. Most of the countries in South America tend to go in and out of chaos. Panama is a stable democracy with a booming economy and jobs.”
Soft music played in the background. “How do you handle the influx of immigrants,” another man asked. “As you may know, it’s a hot topic here in the United States.”
Same UN Commission For Refugees
“We live and abide by the same standards as the United States because we are a participating country of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees,” I explained. “There are protocols dictated by that commission. But, in practicality, we had to make changes recently when so many people started coming to our door. It used to be the government was pretty lax on visitors who entered. For tourists they could just make a weekend of it, by going to Costa Rica and upon returning their visa clock was reset. Now, if your papers aren’t in order, you have to leave for a much longer time, like 90 days. That isn’t practical for people who really live in Panama so pretty much everyone I know have their papers in order.”
“Once in Panama, are there jobs for the immigrants?” a woman asked. “Do they strain social services?”
“You cannot compare the refugees coming to Panama with those coming to the United States,” I began while considering the table in the next room. It was groaning from delicious looking offerings. “Our numbers are smaller, our costs are less and you can live inexpensively. Lots of beans and rice. Our medical care is some of the best anywhere and yet it is pennies on the dollar compared to your costs. We have a great deal of charitable work. Churches and other groups help people get settled. Fewer people though,” I said.
So Many Influences
“Basically, we are a schizophrenic nation,” I laughed. “Panama, because of our geographic location, with that beautiful Panama Canal, has seen lots of different nations and people come and go. The French have a strong footprint because they started the Canal, and the Chinese workers were brought in to build the Canal and there are many, with a Chinese heritage, who have lived their entire life in Panama. We celebrate independence days from both Colombia and Spain. It would be difficult to estimate the influence of the United States. We embrace many different cultures, religions and basically have a live and let live attitude. Of course, we need to take care of our people and not strain the system, but right now Panama is in a good place.”
There was a pause so I grabbed the opportunity. “I could talk about Panama all day,” I began, “but I’ve been looking at that dining room table. I’ve enjoyed the small bites that have been passed, but those little sandwiches look inviting,” I concluded and moved quickly.
My friend moved toward me as we both dipped a shrimp tail into cocktail sauce. “What have you been talking about all this time,” she inquired. “You’ve not stopped talking and I was worried you’d be bored!”
“Everyone had lots of questions about Panama, refugees, our economy,” I explained.
“You just couldn’t help yourself could you,” she said laughing. “A favorite subject. Panama. Panama. Panama.”