San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Immigration Plans Big Changes

Take this with a grain of salt the size of a softball: it looks like Immigration may be in for big changes.

The massive and infamously inefficient organization, known for its day-long lines and – to give one example of many – waits of  up to 10 months to renew an annual residency permit, will look very different by the end of 2007, if Director Mario Zamora has his way. In his vision, the General Immigration Administration will soon offer services not just at one San José location, but at regional offices and bank branches all over the country, eliminating the need for citizens to camp out overnight outside Immigration offices just to get a passport.He also hopes to completely computerize Immigration’s disorganized paper file system.

Zamora also has a plan to address the issue at the heart of what, for many Costa Ricans, is the problem with immigration: the drain foreign immigrants place on public funds. Costa Rica has at least 200,000 illegal immigrants increasing the demands on the state-funded health-care and education systems, according to Zamora, who added that the Social Security System (Caja) spends ¢10 billion ($19.4 million) more each year on immigrants’ health care than it receives from legal foreign residents in taxes.

To ease this burden and, in turn, the resentment some Costa Ricans feel toward foreigners, especially low-income immigrants, he’s proposed a new monthly tax on foreign residents that’s already met with criticism. It would require all foreigners except students, religious leaders, refugees and seasonal workers to pay $8-17 per month depending on their income. The money would go to a fund co-managed by the Social Security System (Caja) and Public Education Ministry.

“It will change perceptions about the phenomenon of immigration,” Zamora told The Tico Times this week. “Instead of being a threat to the Costa Rican state, it becomes an element of strength.”

George González, head of immigration services at the Costa Rican Residents’ Association, which provides support for current and would-be residents, says this proposal to charge foreign residents a monthly tax is neither fair nor constitutional.

“It would be unconstitutional to say that foreigners have to pay more than nationals,” he said, adding that while many North American residents may be able to afford the new monthly fee, many Nicaraguan immigrants cannot. “It has to be based on income.”

Immigration should instead devote its energies to ensuring all residents are contributing to the Caja as the law requires, González said – and if the institution needs more funds, all those who live here, not just foreigners, should by required to pay more.

Decentralizing the Beast

Previous Immigration directors have promised changes, and failed, but Zamora says these reforms will happen – in part because a process is already under way to make services accessible outside the Central Valley.

Now, Costa Ricans and foreigners living in outlying provinces or mountain towns must make their way to Immigration headquarters in La Uruca, west of the capital, for passports, cédulas (residency cards), or any other process. Once there, it’s common to stand in line all day.

The institution has become more and more backed up over the years. Zamora said in a September interview that years of inadequate funding, particularly the foreigner services department, are to blame. This has resulted in ridiculous scenarios. People hold spots in the overnight passport line, then sell them to the highest bidder. Foreigners show up to renew their cédulas, wait in line for hours, then receive a printout explaining they must come back for another appointment months away (TT, Sept. 29).

Change is near, Zamora says. On Dec. 19, Immigration will open its first regional office in the Central Pacific port city of Puntarenas. Shortly thereafter, additional offices will open in Liberia, capital of the northwestern province of Guanacaste; San Carlos, in the Northern Zone; and the Caribbean port of Limón. These new sites will reduce not only lines at La Uruca but travel time for residents of those areas.

To increase the decentralization, Immigration is working with the state-owned Banco de Costa Rica so people can take care of payments and paperwork for their passports or cédulas at the bank’s branches nationwide.

During the first months of 2007, passport services will be offered at 29 branches; by the end of the year, 70 will carry the service; and by the end of 2008, 180, Zamora said.

Foreigners will be able to renew their cédulas at Banco de Costa Rica branches by July of next year, if all goes according to schedule. Current plans don’t allow for foreigners to retrieve their cédula for the first time at the bank – only those renewing their documents will be able to use the service –but that could change, he added.

What’s more, foreigners whose cédulas are set to expire now have a respite. An executive decree soon to be published in the official government daily La Gaceta will automatically renew, for one year, foreigners’ cédulas that expired between this past Dec. 1 and July 1, 2007. The decree also applies to foreigners whose cédulas expired before Dec. 1, but who are still waiting for a renewal appointment.

The help will only go so far. When two foreign residents filed suit recently before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV), apparently disgruntled after visiting Immigration to renew their cédulas and receiving appointments nearly a year away, the justices ruled last week that Zamora must ensure the residents’ renewals “are received and processed immediately.”

However, asked about the decision, Zamora said he hadn’t heard of it – and can’t comply.

“Complying is impossible,” he said. “It’s no secret that Immigration is in a state of collapse.”

He added that Immigration is in the process of informing banks, hospitals and other relevant institutions about the decree legalizing expired cédulas, and that foreign residents planning to leave the country can print out a copy of the decree, available at, to help convince airline personnel of their status here.

Zamora is also at the forefront of President Oscar Arias’ efforts to reform the controversial Immigration Law that took effect Aug. 12. The law, which gives police greater freedom in tracking down and deporting illegal immigrants and was widely criticized by church and human rights groups as it made its lengthy way through the Legislative Assembly, was finally approved in 2005; Arias made changing it a priority since before he took office May 8.

A team at Immigration has been drafting the reforms for months, using feedback from some of the existing law’s critics, and is ready to submit them to Casa Presidencial before the end of the year. Zamora said the Executive Branch will likely send them on to the assembly in the first four months of 2007.

The reforms include a wide range of changes.

The law that took effect in August requires foreigners seeking a change in their immigration status – for example, a tourist seeking temporary residency – to visit the Costa Rican consulates in their countries of origin as part of the process; the reforms would remove that requirement to simplify the process.

Procedures for businesses seeking immigration permits for temporary workers from Nicaragua or other countries would also be simplified. Now, businesses must travel to Nicaragua as part of the process, which includes Immigration and the Labor Ministry; the reforms would transfer all authority to Immigration and would eliminate the mandatory Nicaragua visit, easing the burden on small and medium businesses, Zamora said.

Overall, the goal is “to move from an immigration model based on control, to one based on positive integration,” he said.


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