San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Chaos Reigns At Immigration

IT might seem that things couldn’t get worse for animmigration system in which it takes three hours in lineto get an appointment two months away to come backand wait in line for six more hours. But users in recentweeks have complained of just that – and even morepainful experiences – at the General ImmigrationAdministration, an institution critics say defines bureaucraticinefficiency.Still, authorities say these problems are only growingpains resulting from recent changes, and they areconfident improvements are on the horizon.Immigration is struggling with an archaic computersystem, more foreign residents to assist, more passportrequests to process and fewer resources than it had six years ago, according to ImmigrationDirector Marco Badilla.Despite these conditions, Badilla isconfident that changes implemented lastweek and last month will turn the departmentaround.“We are just beginning,” he said. Giveme four to six months to get everythingrunning smoothly.”THE chaos at Immigration is visiblefrom the highway that passes by the centraloffices in La Uruca, northwest of San José.Hundreds of people can be seen waiting inlines that wrap around the building.Inside, the scene is not much different.No signs are posted to indicate which ofmany different lines is for foreigners askingfor residency or Costa Ricans solicitingpassports. The only sign posted in the residencyarea reads “get in line,” but whichline is anyone’s guess, since not even theinformation desk is labeled.People wait for hours in chairs or leaningagainst fences for lines to crawl along.Lawyer José Ortíz said Immigrationhas reached “monumental inefficiency.”Ortíz, who says other immigrationlawyers back him, is leading a crusade totransform Immigration. Since June 6, hehas filed 120 lawsuits before theConstitutional Chamber of the SupremeCourt (Sala IV) against the department.SPECIFICALLY, he says the twomonths it takes to get an appointment torequest a passport violates a person’s constitutionalright to move freely in the countryor abroad.To request residency or a passport fromImmigration, people must travel to La Urucato wait in line, sometimes for as many asfour hours, to request an appointment.Passport appointments can also be requestedby e-mailing Recently, Immigration has founditself so backed up that appointments aregiven up to two months in the future.When the appointment-holder returns,he or she often has to wait in line again foras many as five hours or is told to returnthe following day if it is an afternoonappointment, a particular inconveniencefor those who live in remote areas.Since Ortíz began his crusade two weeksago, Immigration has been doling out hundredsof prompt passport appointments, totalingapproximately 1,000 each day, nearlytwice the passport section’s normal capacity.The system was further backed up becauseImmigration was closed for two days lastweek to update the computer system.“THE current (computer) system isdying. It is from five years ago and it isobsolete. We are giving it mouth tomouth,” Badilla said.The sacrifice of being closed for twodays was worth it because it increased thesystem’s capacity from 420 passports perday to 720, he added.The system will receive another boostat the end of the year, when a ¢800 million($1.7 million) investment is made in a systemfor electronically readable passports.The new system, which is expected to be infull operation in 2006, will make passportsmore secure and speed up the solicitationprocess, Badilla said.WHILE Ortíz concedes it appearsImmigration is solving the passport problem,what concerns him most is the redtape and long lines facing foreign residentsand would-be residents.“I wonder why foreigners don’t leavehere running,” he said. “Supposedly foreigninvestment is fundamental in thiscountry, but look what we put the managersof companies, the people who comehere to work and invest, through.”FOR 55 years Immigration hasworked under the same inefficient, verticalstructure, with all the responsibility in fewhands, Badilla said. That finally changedMay 16, when the department was restructuredand simplified.Many lawyers using the new systemsaid this week it was causing more problemsthan solutions. They suggest simplechanges be put into effect, such as requiringresidency renewals every two yearsinstead of every year. But Badilla remainsconvinced that, over time, users will findthe restructured system more efficient.IN addition to archaic systems,Immigration has struggled becausedemands are greater while resources havebeen cut, Badilla said. In 1999, approximately80,000 foreigners had residencyhere; today that number is approximately300,000, he said. The number of employeesin Immigration has dropped from 600to 530 during the same period.Since 2003, Immigration also hasbecome responsible for residency categoriespreviously overseen by the CostaRican Tourism Institute (ICT).In addition, legal modification in2002 forced the department to turn overto the central government the funds itgenerates, which it was previouslyallowed to use, Badilla said – althoughthis would change under the new immigrationlaw currently being debated in theLegislative AssemblyBadilla suggests Immigration usersreview the Web site www.migracion.go.crto familiarize themselves with all therequirements for their requests. While peoplecan use lawyers for the procedures, hewarned the public against trusting peoplewho say they can do the entire procedurefor you.

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