San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Immigration Law: Dead on Arrival?

Confusion and conflict continue to surround the new Immigration Law, but one thing became clear this week: foreigners aren’t likely to notice any difference after it goes into effect next week.

The Executive Branch, which has criticized the law passed by the previous administration, submitted a bill to the Legislative Assembly that would delay it until December 2007.

Legislators say there’s no way they can approve it in time, but that might not matter.

Immigration Director Mario Zamora told The Tico Times that regardless of whether the law’s start date is postponed, Immigration simply cannot comply with the law because officials don’t have ¢7 billion ($13.6 million) for the new police, infrastructure and administrative reforms the law demands.

“No one’s obliged to do the impossible,” he said.

These developments were met with relief from critics of the law, who say it’s extreme and potentially violates human rights. Others say the country desperately needs the new measures.

“I’m absolutely against the administration’s position,” said Oscar López, the only legislator from the Access Without Exclusion Party (PASE). “There’s no room for any more immigrants here… Costa Rica is for Costa Ricans.”

A Change of Direction

The General Law of Immigration, approved in 2005, has been years in the making. First proposed in February 2001 by the administration of President Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002), the bill was designed to update Costa Rica’s 1986 immigration codes by giving police greater freedom to find and deport illegal immigrants.

The law allows police to enter companies and review payrolls and documentation related to the hiring of foreigners; levy increased penalties for companies that hire illegal workers, ranging from $600-$3,600; and fine people who provide housing to people living here illegally. It also includes administrative changes within Immigration to boost its efficiency.

While the assembly discussed the law, various migrant rights groups asked legislators to consider changes. The Catholic Church proposed changes to the law in December 2003, and the Forum on Migrant Populations – a group led by the Ombudsman’s Office – followed suit with a 45-page document suggesting modifications.

“Our suggestions were paid little attention,” said Angel San Casimiro Fernández, president of the Church’s social outreach organization, Caritas. “Unfortunately, the same occurred with the contributions made by public universities, the Ombudsman’s Office and organizations of civil society.”

The law was approved in October and published Dec. 12 of last year in the official government daily La Gaceta, with the provision that the government had eight months to put the law into effect. During those eight months, however, a new President, Oscar Arias, and 57 new legislators were elected and took office. In June, Rodrigo Arias, the President’s brother and spokesman, confirmed the administration would ask the assembly to approve a 16-month delay to discuss possible changes to the law.

Fernando Berrocal, who, as Public Security Minister, oversees the General Immigration Administration, said in late June that the Executive Branch would probably form a commission with representatives from various sectors to discuss modifying the new law. However, the primary reasons given for the delay were economic.

“It’s absolutely impossible for this administration to put (the law) in practice,” Berrocal said. “The money doesn’t exist. The corresponding budgetary preparations weren’t made.”

According to Berrocal and Immigration Director Zamora, the primary expenditures the law requires include building detention centers for illegal immigrants, hiring at least 565 addition Immigration police (an increase from 35 to 600), buying additional vehicles and improving the organization’s infrastructure.

Zamora said the law passed last year indicated it is up to Immigration to draw up a special budget for the extra funds needed, which he did upon taking office in mid-May. However, the Finance Ministry informed him Immigration wouldn’t get any so many funding this year or next, Zamora said.

He compared the situation to passing a law making university attendance mandatory, but not taking into account the fact that the country’s universities don’t have room for so many students.

“It puts us between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “If the previous government wanted this law to be applied, why didn’t they leave (funds)?”

Earlier in the week he told the daily La Nación, “It’s one more case of a law that’s not complied with.”

Rodrigo Arias said yesterday that the government will “do whatever is possible” to comply with the law while waiting for the delay to be approved.

Pros and Cons

Monsignor San Casimiro said the Church considers the government’s attempt to delay the law “not only correct, but opportune,” because it will allow the government to “obtain the necessary resources for its implementation” and “open the discussion of some significant changes to the content of the law.” He said the country does need a new immigration law, but the version set to take effect Aug. 12 “does little for the country’s traditions of respect and promotion of human rights.”

Gustavo Gátika, Caritas’ director of immigration affairs, said Zamora’s comments about the difficulties of applying the law are “prudent and sensible” and “in tune with what the President has said about the law: that it has omissions.”

According to Martha Isabel Cranshaw, coordinator of the Nicaraguan Migration Network, the law would have dire effects for both Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans. An estimated 150,000 Nicaraguans, 45,000 of whom are minors, are living illegally in Costa Rica, according to Cranshaw.

“Costa Rica has to accept that Nicaraguans working in Costa Rica are a reality. It fills an economic need for both countries,” she said. “No one benefits from mass deportation. It violates the rights of the Nicaraguans, and it would be economic suicide for Costa Rica.”

Business owners in the construction and agricultural sectors often depend on Nicaraguan laborers to support their industries. Gabriela Lobo, director of the Coffee Growers’ Chamber, told The Tico Times she’s pleased by the government’s actions. Last year, part of the coffee harvest was lost because of a worker shortage, she said.

“We agree there should be legislation that regulates immigration, but we think (the government) should look for more flexible mechanisms,” she added.

However, legislators such as López and José Manuel Echandi, of the National Union Party (PUN), oppose the government’s stance. Echandi, a former Ombudsman who criticized the Immigration Law during his term as the “defender of the inhabitants,” as the post is literally translated from Spanish, says it may have flaws, but economic reasons are not a valid reason to ignore it. According to Echandi, legislators should study whether the law violates the Constitution or international treaties and, if so, take those issues before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV), but simply delaying or failing to implement the legislation is not the answer.

“The law was approved by the assembly. It’s not acceptable that now the Executive Branch says it doesn’t have a budget to put it into effect,” he said. “This country urgently needs an immigration policy.”

What’s Ahead

The bill to delay the new law, presented July 27 by the Executive Branch, was published yesterday in the official government daily La Gaceta, meaning that the Social Affairs Commission can now begin to examine it. Rodrigo Arias said it will occupy the top spot on that commission’s agenda, but according to commission president Ofelia TaitelBaum, that doesn’t mean it will be approved next week.

She used the word of choice for the Immigration Law, “impossible,” to define the bill’s chance of being approved on time. To comply with assembly regulations, the group must wait five days starting yesterday to begin discussing the bill in their Tuesday and Wednesday meetings to give legislators time to study it.As with all new bills, the assembly’s Technical Services department must also review the text, which will take about a week.

Once discussion begins, any legislator who wishes to ask outside sources, such as the Sala IV, Immigration or other authorities, for their assessment of the bill can delay approval, she said – and “we have a ton of holidays this month; that’s one of the things going against us.”

Commission member López says he’ll do anything within his power to keep the delay from moving forward. Cases before the Sala IV, motions to reform the bill, or even lawsuits against Zamora should he fail to enforce the law are all options he says he’ll consider.

“I’ll use all possible legal means to ensure that the Immigration Law is put in practice in Costa Rica with the necessary rigor,” he said.

Asked why the Executive Branch didn’t submit the bill earlier, given the time needed to approve it, TaitelBaum was at a loss.

“I have no idea,” she said.“Maybe there was a delay.”


Nica Times Editor Tim Rogers and Tico Times reporters Leland Baxter-Neal and María Gabriela Díaz contributed to this story.


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