San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Immigration in Disarray

Foreigners in line at Immigration swap stories about the problem-ridden bureaucracy as if they were war tales. The man who started shaking in fury after losing his longawaited appointment with officials because he was twice directed to the wrong hourlong line. The people whose papers were lost altogether in the mass of 600,000 manila files shelved throughout the complex. And, lately, 10-month waits for new residency permits, forcing foreigners here to attempt bank transactions, travel and all other aspects of their daily lives without up-to-date papers.

In the spacious, air-conditioned office above this chaos, Immigration Director Mario Zamora isn’t making any denials. At 37, he’s charged with improving one of the country’s most infamously inefficient bureaucracies, and he freely admits the organization he’s headed since May has treated its clients poorly for years. He calls shoddy service for foreigners a serious problem that hasn’t received enough attention.

According to Zamora, changes for the Foreigner Services Section, which handles requests for temporary and permanent residency, among other processes, are on the way, perhaps as soon as December. Eleven staff members are working to put the file system in order, and a regulatory change will allow residents to make appointments for residency renewals six months in advance of their expiration date.

A special Immigration office will soon open at JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport, west of San José, to handle travelers’ complaints and questions, and next year, the organization will begin computerizing Immigration’s files, Zamora says.

That may provide little comfort for foreigners such as Julián Arias, 56, a 40-year resident who waited in line for two and a half hours Tuesday at Immigration headquarters west of San José. Like the hundreds of others standing in the sun, Arias waiting in line not to renew his residency, but rather to obtain an appointment to renew his residency – an appointment that, because of administrative backup, is scheduled for July 2007.

Arias, who hails from Rivas, Nicaragua, and is now a farmer in the Caribbean-slope town of Guápiles, cheerfully told The Tico Times he’s used to the process, having renewed his cédula, or identity card, 36 times. However, after reaching the customer service window and being handed a slip of paper with his appointment date, he counted out all 10 months on his fingers and displayed a less forgiving attitude.

“It’s the worst,” said the Immigration veteran. “Before, you’d just come and they’d give it to you right there.”

Should foreigners be worried about carrying expired permits and not being able to get in appointment for months?

According to Zamora, who said the increased delays are simply the result of years of backup, Immigration officials will accept the computer printout showing a renewal appointment date, and won’t deport anyone whose cédula has expired but is waiting for renewal – though he said deporting such people is theoretically possible under the law, and is up to the discretion of the director. Officials Zamora doesn’t oversee may not recognize the printout, he admitted.

A longtime resident who asked that her name be withheld visited Immigration in August, a few days before her cédula expired. She was given an appointment nine months away.When she visited her bank to withdraw funds shortly thereafter, bank employees did not accept her computer printout as evidence of legal status. She wasn’t able to complete the transaction until she returned with her U.S. passport and met with the bank manager.

Reduced admission to national parks or fares on national airlines, perks that legal residents, as taxpayers, enjoy, will depend on whether the person behind the counter is aware of the delay, Zamora said.

Another potential problem: non-residents are sometimes asked to show an airline ticket out of Costa Rica before they can board a Costa Rica-bound plane. Unless airline officials accept the printout as evidence of residency, residents may be forced to buy tickets back to their countries of residence (partially refundable once you reach Costa Rica).

Zamora and the Immigration Police did not return Tico Times phone calls by press time to explain why residents have to make their renewal appointments in person.

Overwhelmed, Overlooked

According to Zamora, previous Immigration heads and most media organizations have forgotten about the problems facing foreigners at Immigration, focusing instead on the plight of Costa Ricans. (For nationals, getting a passport requires waiting months for an appointment, or camping out in the predawn hours outside Immigration, some with sleeping bags and thermoses of coffee, and many illegally selling spots in line to those with money to spare.)

Costa Rican attorney Randall Zamora (no relation to Mario Zamora) recently added his tale of disorganization and lack of respect in the Foreigner Services Section to the mix: according to the lawyer, three of his clients were told their application documents had been lost and they would have to return to their countries of origin to begin the whole process again.

The lawyer visited Immigration earlier this month with a group of clients hailing from Germany, Israel and the United States, all of whom had turned in the required paperwork obtained in their home countries, such as birth certificates and police background checks. When officials looked for his clients’ paperwork, attorney Zamora told The Tico Times, he saw them open a file with one name on it, only to find paperwork for a different person inside, and open another file to find several people’s papers mixed together.

Eventually, he was told his clients’ papers had all been lost and that they would have to return to their home countries to get new copies, “as if it was just from here to the corner.” To top it off, the officials who attended to his clients were highly disrespectful, the lawyer added.

Those who go to Immigration should “take a suitcase not full of money, but full of patience, because these people don’t have any culture of client service,” he said. “They treated (my clients) like criminals.”

The lawyer advised people dealing with Immigration to obtain a certified copy of all paperwork before submitting it to Immigration; apparently, that’s all that kept some of Zamora’s clients from having to book flights to other continents. People should also ask for all information from Immigration in writing.Non-Spanish speakers should take a bilingual person to deal with clerks and help with the process, he said.Asked about these complaints, Director Mario Zamora said Immigration’s personnel are overworked, and that “high-stress situations” can result. Regarding what foreigners should do to deal with the system until changes come about, he reiterated that people should always make copies of any paperwork they give Immigration and ask officials to stamp their copies “Recibido” so they have proof the documents were submitted.

Users of any of Costa Rica’s public services should make this a habit, he added.

Another of Immigration’s problems: centralization. Zamora said one plan under way to improve service to Costa Ricans and foreigners alike is the opening of five regional offices so people don’t have to travel to San José to complete their paperwork.

For now, all roads lead to La Uruca, and within Immigration, Zamora himself – whose office, in keeping with the theme of waiting, is reached after sitting in not one, but two virtually identical, consecutive waiting rooms – is required to sign off on a surprising number of transactions.

At JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport in Alajuela, northwest of San José, travelers entering the country Sept. 17 were held in the waiting area because the computers at the Immigration posts went down.

Officials told travelers there was no contingency plan for this unprecedented occurrence, and that unless Zamora himself authorized an alternative course of action, officials would keep the visitors there as long as it took the system to come back up. (It did so in an hour.)

‘A Small, 360-Degree Turn’

Still, Zamora, who has degrees in law and political science and experience working in the Public Security Ministry and Ombudsman’s Office, seems confident he’ll make a difference, backed by a President who wants a more accommodating, user-friendly national immigration policy.

Zamora said his focus on improving services for Costa Ricans and foreigners alike is part of President Oscar Arias’ goal of making the country a better place to visit, live and invest. The administration’s efforts to reduce the impact of the hard-line Immigration Law passed during the previous administration, which took effect last month, constitutes “a small, 360-degree turn,” he said.

Zamora has said the government doesn’t have the funds or personnel to implement the law, and is working on a set of reforms to incorporate concerns the Catholic Church, human-rights groups and other organizations raised when the bill was discussed and approved in the last legislative term (2002-2006).

In the meantime, to minimize the law’s impact, the Executive Branch is working on a reglamento for the new law – a set of rules that determines how the law will be enforced – and plans to implement it gradually as it works on the reforms (TT, Sept. 8).

The law imposes and increases fines for those who house or employ illegal immigrants and gives Immigration Police greater freedom.

For more information on Immigration’s requirements and recent changes (in Spanish), visit

A Morning in Line

Not one to be content with second-hand accounts, this intrepid reporter decided to stand in line at Immigration and see for herself what foreigners go through to stay legal in Costa Rica.

OK. The fact that I, too, was due to renew my residency card had something to do with my willingness to make the experiment. The short version: after two and a half hours in line in a concrete courtyard on a hot morning, followed by 30 seconds of face time with the Immigration official at the window, I walked away with a computer printout indicating I can return to stand in another line on July 31, 2007, the day of my appointment for a new cédula (identity card).

In other words, eight months after receiving my original cédula granting me temporary residency, a document for which I’d waited for approximately one year after turning in my paperwork, I’m waiting once again, with only a flimsy computer printout to show airline officials, bank employees, police, and anyone else with a right to request proof of my legal status in Costa Rica.

But the exasperation and sunburn caused by a morning at Immigration is only part of what I took away. Equally notable was the friendly nature and histories of the others in line, who became known to one other not by name, but by the names of the countries they miss. Surrounding this U.S. transplant were a Colombian refugee hoping for residency someday, a Cuban woman who moved to Costa Rica to marry a Tico, and a group of Nicaraguans who somehow took more than an hour of conversation to discover they’re all from the town of Rivas.

We talked about Immigration at first – horror stories, inconveniences, clucks of dismay and oohs of excitement as the line crawls forward – but only for awhile. The people around me discussed whether Fidel Castro is worse than his brother; which calling cards are the cheapest; the small town in Ohio where a Colombian man alighted when driven from his country by war; why people in their homelands are nicer and closer-knit than they are here.

Still, the reason for these two-hour friendships was always in the air. As one man, a six-year resident from Colombia who runs his own construction supply company, put it simply: “It shouldn’t be like this.”

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