World

Panama ending eased immigration program amid uproar of nationalist sentiment

People sitting on a wall at the Cinta Costera land reclamation project on the Avenida Balboa in Panama City. (Photo by Francis Tsang/Cover/Getty Images)

People sitting on a wall at the Cinta Costera land reclamation project on the Avenida Balboa in Panama City. (Photo by Francis Tsang/Cover/Getty Images)  (FRANCIS TSANG)

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 runs through Oct. 12, and the government of new President Juan Carlos Varela says there will be no more.

The program launched in 2010 temporarily eases requirements for those seeking to live and work for several years in a country 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 they've been in the country for a year and have no trouble with the law. They get a two or 10 year residence and work permit

Some U.S. 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 the measure boosts the economy and improves security by ensuring foreigners have clean records, noting that only a handful of those granted permits have been later arrested for crimes.

The fairs have roused increasing opposition, often based on fears of competition for jobs, and that has spawned professional and youth groups united under slogans such as "Panama for Panamanians" and "United for Panama." The country's main business groups have said attacks on it border on xenophobia, an allegation most critics reject.

"We have never been opposed to foreigners, nor are we xenophobic. That's 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."

A national association of attorneys also has denounced the program.

"The truth is that foreigners are in all the jobs that are exclusively for Panamanians, and obviously that has to be regulated, said Irma Arauz, president of the immigration commission for the College of Lawyers.

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