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Biden plans to deploy immigration officers to Panama to help screen and deport U.S.-bound migrants, officials say

McAllen, Texas — The Biden administration is planning to deploy a team of U.S. immigration officials to Panama to help local authorities screen and deport migrants traveling through the Central American country, which is a key transit point for those hoping to reach America's southern border, two U.S. officials with knowledge of the plans told CBS News.

The Department of Homeland Security has identified a team of officials with experience screening asylum-seekers and deporting migrants that will be dispatched to Panama once a final agreement is reached with that country's government, which asked for the assistance, the U.S. government officials said, requesting anonymity in order to discuss internal plans.

The objective is to have personnel from various DHS agencies, including U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and Immigration and Customs Enforcement train and assist Panamanian authorities as they grapple with an extraordinary flow of migrants into the Darién Gap, a rugged jungle that connects Panama with South America.

Ecuadorian migrants climb a rocky trail in the wild and dangerous jungle on November 20, 2022 in Darién Gap, Colombia.
Ecuadorian migrants climb a rocky trail in the wild and dangerous jungle on November 20, 2022, in Darién Gap, Colombia. Jan Sochor/Getty Images

Nearly 500,000 migrants, half of them women and children, have crossed the once-impenetrable Darién jungle on foot this year, a record and once-unthinkable number, according to Panamanian government data. The vast majority of migrants have come from Venezuela, which has seen millions of its citizens flee in recent years to escape a widespread economic crisis and authoritarian rule.

The Biden administration plans to train Panamanian officials to screen migrants for humanitarian protection and deport those who don't qualify. It is also planning to help Panama secure government contracts to bolster its deportation operations, a senior U.S. official said.

The novel initiative would be subsidized by U.S. State Department funds. The administration has notified Congress that it intends to divert the money to DHS to fund the effort, which will only begin once Panama and the U.S. finalize a formal agreement.

The "goal of the program is to provide technical assistance and other capacity building so that they can basically create a more robust program to repatriate migrants who do not establish a legal basis to remain in Panama," the senior U.S. official told CBS News.

Representatives for Panama's embassy in the U.S. did not respond to requests for comment.

The U.S. plans underscore the Biden administration's desperation to reduce the unprecedented levels of migration to the southern border over the past three years. In fiscal year 2023, U.S. Border Patrol recorded over 2 million apprehensions of migrants who entered the country without authorization — only the second time the agency has surpassed that tally.

The plans also illustrate the extent to which the U.S. — under Democratic and Republican administrations — relies on other countries in the region to manage complex migration patterns that have intensified in sheer numbers and in diversity of nationalities and demographics. 

Indeed, the Biden administration has increasingly worked to convince Latin American countries to stop U.S.-bound migrants by granting humanitarian protection to those eligible for it and deporting those who aren't. Nineteen countries agreed to those requests when they signed the U.S.-brokered Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection last year.

Mr. Biden's administration has sought to manage migration through these diplomatic efforts as well as a combination of penalties for illegal border crossings — including a rule that restricts asylum eligibility — and expanded opportunities for migrants to come to the U.S. legally. 

Migrants cross the Tuquesa river near Bajo Chiquito village, the first border control of the Darien Province in Panama, on September 22, 2023. LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images

That strategy saw some success in late spring, when illegal entries along the southern border plunged to a two-year low. But the downward trend was quickly reversed in the summer, and unlawful crossings soared to the highest level this year in September, driven in part by record arrivals of Venezuelans.

Illegal border entries did decrease in October, though they remained at historically high levels. One of the senior U.S. officials said the move to start deportation flights to Venezuela contributed to the drop in migration to the U.S. and to Panama, which also recorded a significant decrease in crossings along the Darién jungle in October.

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