San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Immigration Reforms Urgent, Director Says

A new and very different Immigration Law created by the administration of President Oscar Arias has finally made its way to the Legislative Assembly – and the pressure is on. According to Immigration Director Mario Zamora, it’s crucial that legislators approve the bill this month before the current session ends and a host of other weighty legislation, such as a free-trade agreement with the United States, swamps the agenda.

“It’s urgent legislation for the country,” Zamora told The Tico Times this week. “It’s do or die.”

The law, which Zamora and his colleagues have been drafting for nearly a year in coordination with various political parties, rights groups, business chambers and other organizations, would protect immigrant rights by increasing penalties for human trafficking and trade, as well as simplify the process for obtaining residency.

If approved, it will replace the highly controversial existing law and end a strange period of limbo caused by the President’s opposition to, and refusal to fully implement, the law on the books. The current law was approved during the administration of Arias’ predecessor, President Abel Pacheco, and took effect last year shortly after Arias took office despite his attempts to postpone it.Widely criticized by religious and rights groups, the existing law cracks down on illegal immigration and increases police rights to search for and deport illegal immigrants – though Zamora has long maintained that Immigration simply doesn’t have the more than $13 million and 671 additional staff members it would need to comply with the law (TT, Sept. 8, 2006).

The existing law also places additional restrictions on residency processes, Zamora said, making illegal status an all-too-attractive option given the red tape, inconvenience and cost of becoming legal. He estimates Costa Rica has 600,000 legal foreign residents and 350,000 illegal immigrants today.

“At the end of the day, it’s better to be illegal than legal,” he said of the complicated trámite facing would-be legal residents. “A country that sends that message to its foreign population is a country that doesn’t recognize the contribution the foreign sector can provide.”

To fix this, the 87-page new law, of which The Tico Times has a copy, implements structural changes to make it easier and quicker for a foreigner to obtain legal residency. The most important simplification, according to Zamora: foreigners will now be able to conduct the whole process here in Costa Rica, rather than visiting Costa Rican consulates abroad as the current law requires.

“We want to recover a direct relationship between Immigration and users,” Zamora said, explaining that too many residents must now pay for lawyers to help them with the complicated paperwork involved in becoming legal. In addition to the law, Immigration officials are working to provide instructions for every stage of the process in both Spanish and English, as well as a set of administrative decrees to take effect along with the law if it’s approved. These decrees would include further simplifications to avoid some of the redundant requirements in the current law, Zamora explained.

“For example: we ask people for their birth certificates, when the passport shows the date of birth… it’s unnecessary,” he said.

In exchange for this new convenience and simplicity, the new law would require that foreigners pay an “immigrant canon” to support the Social Security System (Caja) and Public Education Ministry (MEP). Though this canon was initially envisioned as a monthly payment ranging from $8-17 depending on a foreigner’s income, it has been reduced in the current version of the law to $25 per year, to be paid when a foreign resident renews his or her cédula, or identity card. This money will go to a fund to be shared by the national health-care and public education systems.

Asked why legal residents, who often have their own health insurance or already contribute to the Caja through their employment, and many of whom send their children to private schools, should contribute for this purpose, Zamora said it’s part of Costa Rican solidarity.

“We could have left those resources to modernize Immigration… but we see (social services) as a priority,” he said. “Also, it’s foreigner-to-foreigner solidarity.”

Ryan Piercy, the general manager of the Costa Rican Residents’ Association, said that while he certainly has his eye on the proposed law, he’s not getting too worked up yet given the convoluted process involved in approving the previous Immigration Law.

“When it first goes to the drawing board, I don’t tend to pay too much attention to it, because it tends to change so much,” Piercy, a Canadian who has lived in Costa Rica for 10 years, told The Tico Times. “I like to wait until it gets closer to how it’s actually going to look. We went through this last time and it was three years, and the (bill) they first proposed was so completely different.

“Once they get a bit closer to the full review of it, then we’ll probably start to look at whether there’s anything that needs to be lobbied against to protect the interest of foreigners here,” he added.

He said he approves of increased fees to be paid with cédulas if it helps improve services from Immigration and other government organizations.

“The majority (of residents) don’t pay the Caja,” he said, adding that 15-20% of his association’s members contribute. “The country needs some income. I think they should put another $25 canon in for the police force, to increase security.”

Zamora, Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal and Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias claim the bill should get a favorable reception in the Legislative Assembly since most parties participated in drafting it.

Elizabeth Fonseca, legislative leader of the opposition Citizen Action Party (PAC) – which chose not to participate in drafting the new bill – said her party, which opposes the current law because it is “too severe,” must still review the new bill but is confident that Zamora has created a good product.

Is the end-of-April voting target realistic? “Could be, God willing,” she told The Tico Times yesterday.

However, complete approval before the end of the month – a deadline made more urgent because the current extraordinary session, during which the Executive Branch sets the agenda, ends May 1, and the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), expected to take plenty of time on the assembly floor, is looming – would be quite a feat. The bill is now awaiting publication in the official government daily La Gaceta before discussion can begin; assembly leaders must then send it to the Government and Administration Commission for discussion.

If that commission votes to send the bill to the assembly floor, legislators must approve it in first and then second debate; in between those debates, legislators can petition the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) to review the constitutionality of the bill, a process that in and of itself can take up to a month.

Asked for Immigration’s strategy if the bill isn’t approved this month, Zamora said he hasn’t looked beyond Plan A. “To be frank, I’m not even considering that possibility,” he said.


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