As I read about all the immigration issues going on back home in the U.S., there are just as many articles circulating right here in Panama.
Here in Panama, a person can own property without being a citizen or resident. It is easy to own property or a vacation home and the laws even encourage retirees and snow-birds. Property taxes are waived for 20 years on newly constructed houses, discounts for people with pensions and the list goes on. I know that no one from the U.S./Canada and probably most other countries do not need a visa to come for 180 days at a time. A tourist visa was automatically applied when you came to the country. Now, granted...there is a goofy, ridiculous law that stated that you could only drive in the country for 90 days as a tourist though. But, if you left the country for 3 days, you could come back and start your tourist visa all over. So those people actually living here as tourists and needing to drive would have to leave every 90 days to keep their own "home country" driver's license valid here in Panama. For snow-birds, that meant that they would spend a few months here in Panama, go to Belize or Costa Rica for a few days and spend the rest of the winter in their vacation home and then return back home. Those that live here all-year had to make a few more mini-vacation trips.
There are visa programs available for people who know they want to stay permanently and have the money for the attorneys, but many people had no issues with driving to Costa Rica for a long weekend 4 times a year. This is by far a cheaper option and much less of a hassle, especially if you are not sure if you want to make Panama your permanent home.
So, what this did was create a ton of "permanent" tourists. People called these long weekends to Costa Rica, their "Border Runs" and there were discussion boards on the most efficient ways, cheapest places, friendlies places, you name it and there was information about it. Costa Rica loved it. They learned how to make money from it as well. They started implementing the exit tax or something like it (I never did a border run, but I know there was some sort of stamp that Costa Rica started implementing.) I know that some of the hostels and cabs/buses were setup for this 3 day mini-vacation and a few businesses started thriving from good reviews from other border run customers.
This has been going on for years and Panama had never seemed to have an issue with it until now.
However, recently Panama has some other immigration issues and decided to actually not allow these border runs any more. Without any real warning, they decided to no longer allow this practice as part of their immigration reform. Not that the practice was technically legal to begin with, but it had never been an issue before. So, as people were across the border on their usual "border run" and are ready to come back, they find themselves unable to come back to Panama. There is no discrimination, it seems to be a pretty clear, that if it appears that you MIGHT be a person that is doing a "border run" or is with a person that is doing one, you are not allowed back in Panama.
The problem with this is that it is catching people that are really just travelling through Central America and happen to cross through the borders visiting family and friends and technically not "living" in Panama or doing anything wrong or illegal. It has left people that were doing border runs in Costa Rica with their pets and belongings unattended in Panama. I am not going to say how I think it should have been handled, I am just trying to relay how I see things today and I can tell you that it is messy for quite a few families.
It will be interesting to see if those that were doing these runs before now decide to pay for the visas or try out other parts of Central America. Either way, things will change with these new immigration rules.