San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Immigration Woes Worsen

Think Costa Rica’s immigration regulations are confusing? Buckle your seatbelt. With a file backup caused by systems the Immigration Director himself calls “perverse,” a controversial new Immigration Law now in effect, and the administration of President Oscar Arias – which opposes the law – creating regulations to try to alter the law’s impact, it appears the country is in for a rough transition.

Mario Zamora, the man at the helm of Immigration, told The Tico Times this week that only parts of the new law, which took effect at midnight Aug. 12, have been implemented to date. Most of these involve increases in the fees users pay for Immigration services: passport fees increased from $25 to $55 and foreign residency fees increased from $28 to $48.

Residents do get one break, however: The new law eliminates the $20 exit fee residents previously paid when leaving the country.

As for the rest of the law, such as provisions to fine people who provide housing or employment for illegal immigrants, or increased police actions to deport such immigrants, Zamora reiterated the stance he’s explained before: The government can’t implement the provisions because it lacks the ¢7 billion (approximately $13.6 million) and 671 additional staff members it would need to comply with the law.

As a result, Immigration is using “the principle of progressive application” and “the principle that no one is obliged to (perform) the impossible” in creating the reglamento for the law, a set of rules written by the Executive Branch that defines how a law will be put into practice. These rules will seek to make up for the fact that the law now in effect “goes in the opposite direction” of the administration’s vision of what immigration policy should be.

“We can be very creative in interpretation,” Zamora said. For example, Article 2 of the law states that immigration policy is a component of the essential security of the state, a definition Zamora called “very rigid – in the reglamento we’re establishing that the concept of ‘security’ is ‘human security.’ With that, we’re giving a change to the meaning of the law.”

Echoing the words of church, human rights and immigration organizations that spent years criticizing the long-awaited new law, Zamora said “the worst that could happen for the national interest and the interest of immigrants is that the law is applied strictly. That would immediately provoke the departure of foreign investment, of migrant workers.” He added that nonprofit and academic organizations with foreign employees could be affected as well.

“We’re gong to make a 360 degree change in the way Costa Rica has been confronting its challenges in the field of immigration,” he said.

How will Costa Ricans and immigrants, whether legal or illegal, know which parts of the new law are being observed and which aren’t?

According to Zamora, the regulations for the law should be ready later this month, providing more clarity to users of the system.

“The bad (aspects) of this transition are still better than the clarity that would come with a strict application of the law,” he said. However, he said not all aspects of the law go through Immigration – some are handled by the Judicial Branch, as a man by the last name of Sánchez found out this week.

A Criminal Court judge in the Southern Zone town of Golfito ruled that Sánchez can’t drive any type of vehicle for three months while he’s investigated for allegedly transporting illegal immigrants, an act punished with two to six years of prison according to the new law, according to La Nación. Sánchez was found with 17 Panamanians in his truck Sept. 1, the daily reported. The prosecutor in the case asked for three months’ preventive detention for Sánchez.

The new law, designed to crack down on illegal immigration, was approved in 2005 after years of debate during the administration of President Abel Pacheco, with a clause stating the government had eight months to prepare before it took effect. Upon taking office in May, Arias and his officials attempted to postpone it, but the Legislative Assembly did not approve the delay bill in time (TT, Aug. 11).

Once the new law took effect, the postponement could no longer occur since it would have created a legal void – with the old law now off the books, postponing the new law would have left the country with no immigration policy. Executive Branch leaders considered submitting a new bill that would temporarily reestablish the old law, but that idea has now been discarded, Zamora said.

Instead, a technical team within the Public Security Ministry is now working to create a new proposal, using as a basis an old draft of the existing law and the motions proposed by the Catholic Church, the Ombudsman’s Office and other critics. The technical team will submit the new bill to Casa Presidencial after a 60-day work period, Zamora said.

The daily La Nación reported this week that foreigners seeking to update their paperwork at Immigration run the risk of falling out of compliance with residency laws because the system used to process files is so disorganized and slow.

The 600,000 paper files of refugees and permanent and temporary residents are stored in boxes and even of the floor of various warehouses; Zamora told the daily the system is in the “stone age.’’ Only 30,000 files are computerized.

Getting an appointment to renew residency status can take up to eight months, not including the time it takes Immigration to process the request after the appointment takes place.


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