By Hugh Bronstein
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Haiti's economy and democracy must be fortified if the United States is to avoid a new wave of illegal immigrants, Panama's president said on Wednesday, urging fellow leaders to actively manage immigration rather than leave it to human traffickers.
Instability in Haiti has increased emigration from the impoverished island nation while Haitians who found refuge in Brazil after the 2010 earthquake are being driven northward by a recession in Latin America's biggest economy.
Panama is their gateway from South America to Central America and eventually the United States and Canada, President Juan Carlos Varela said in an interview on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
"We have to pay attention to the electoral process in Haiti, to support its institutions and its economy. If not, there will be the new crisis in America. It's not going to be people from Central America or Mexico any more. It will be Haiti," Varela said.
In February, Michel Martelly stepped down as president of Haiti without a successor, but only after a deal was reached for a provisional government. New elections are scheduled for Oct. 9 when Maryse Narcisse, a medical doctor and longtime activist, could become the first woman to be elected Haiti’s president.
U.S. border officials are struggling to find enough space to temporarily hold hundreds of Haitian immigrants. Apprehensions of Haitians in southern Mexico are also on the rise, indicating that the surge toward the United States could grow when those people travel north.
Some 3,500 would-be immigrants to the U.S. and Canada are being held in Panamanian refugee centers, 80 to 85 percent of whom are Haitian, Varela said. His government temporarily holds people arriving from Panama's jungle border area with Colombia.
Many arrive in bad health, having trudged three days through the Colombian jungle and then six more days on the Panamanian side of the border, the president said.
"You don't have cameras from the big TV networks filming what's going on in the jungles between Colombia and Panama. But believe me, what's going on is very sad. We have to do whatever it takes to protect these people's lives," Varela said.
Some 2,000 to 2,500 immigrants show up in Panama every month, he said. Three thousand to 4,000 per year come from Africa and other regions outside the Americas, arriving in Panama by way of Brazil and Colombia, he added.
"Once they touch Panamanian soil they are protected by the government for the time that we hold them until they can keep making their way north," he said.
The centers hold immigrants while they are fingerprinted and checked for criminal records with help from U.S. data banks. The centers hold people for about 30 days, so that no more than 100 are released per day.
Varela said he urges other Central American countries to adopt a similar model for handling immigrants, while hoping that a bi-partisan immigration reform bill eventually gets through the U.S. Congress.
"I'd rather see governments and heads of state control immigration than see human traffickers and drug traffickers in control of the process," Varela said.
(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein; editing by Grant McCool)