San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Immigration Opens a Window to the World

U.S. citizen Juan Carlos Solorzano has spent hundreds of hours and about $4,000 in company money chasing after an elusive permit that would enable him to live and work in  Costa Rica.

A high-level manager at the food company Sigma Alimentos in Alajuela, northwest of San José, Solorzano has lived here as a tourist for more than two years while his application for residency gathers dust at Immigration headquarters.

Solorzano is one of about 2,000 people expected to benefit from a new government decree that would speed up residency applications for skilled professionals at multinational companies, export firms, airlines, large hotels and banks.

The decree, issued this week, pledges that the government will process applications within 30 days of receipt. It also allows foreigners to present their documents in Costa Rica, rather than in their home countries.

On paper, the decree markedly improves a process that lawyers, foreigners, company executives and even Immigration Director Mario Zamora describe as so bureaucratic and cumbersome that it reduces  Costa Rica’s competitiveness.

“Foreign investment requires speed and efficiency, and if one country doesn’t make the cut, companies go elsewhere,” Zamora said.


Pressed to Act

The decree was partly a response to frustrated and worried business leaders in Costa Rica. Similar immigration benefits for some 58 companies are set to expire by August 2009. Other firms clamored to be included.

A main worry was competition from Panama, where foreign workers at multinational companies can get a temporary residency card in just three days. When the World Bank measured ease of doing business last year,  Panama ranked 11th of 31 countries in Latin America. Costa Rica ranked 24th.

For the past eight months, the Costa Rican Investment Promotion Agency (CINDE), a private non-profit that represents manufacturing, service and medical device companies, has lobbied the government to take action.

The decree will help about 500 companies, including those whose benefits are set to expire, Zamora said. Firms can apply for the new benefits at a new, exclusive window at immigration headquarters in La Uruca, a northwestern district of San José.

Once a company is accepted, its managers and skilled professionals can seek residency under the fast-track system.

Zamora expects between 2,000 and 3,000 people to qualify for a two-year permit.

The decree saves time and money, he said. Before, consulates around the world mailed applications to immigration authorities in San José, who then forwarded the documents to the Labor Ministry.

Now, eligible foreigners can present their documents directly to immigration authorities who resolve the cases themselves.

“For us, (the decree) was a really important achievement that allows companies to continue growing,” said Vanessa Gibson, investment manager at CINDE.

Still, it remains to be seen whether permits can be granted within the promised 30 days. Current law pledges a 90-day turnaround, but the process can take from six months to two years.

“How many companies will really request these benefits, and how many requests will the window be able to receive?” said Federico Solís, a partner at the immigration firm Fragomen. “We all know (Immigration) lacks resources.”


Gringo Invasion?

Brian Frazee, manager of the White House Hotel in Escazú, west of San José, suggested that the new decree might ease the process too much for foreigners, at Ticos’ expense.

“Maybe there are Costa Ricans who are just as qualified for a position, and then you bring down a foreigner who takes that position away,” he said.

Still, the decree would affect only top management positions. The vast majority of the Costa Rican workforce would remain unchanged. Fragomen’s marketing manager, Raymundo Masís said Ticos can learn from foreign professionals.

“An Intel engineer from India who created the latest Pentium processor is not going to displace Costa Rican engineers. Rather, he’s going to teach them how to develop new products,” Masís said.

In addition to speeding up residency applications, the decree makes it easier for foreign employees at eligible companies to pay brief visits to Costa Rica.

Visitors from certain countries – including Colombia, Cuba, China and India – normally need a visa to enter Costa Rica at all. 

They must apply from home in a process that takes three weeks to two months, depending on nationality.

The decree reduces that time to 10 days – three days in special cases.


Tangled Up in Red

Solorzano hopes the decree will help other foreigners avoid the bureaucratic maze that still hinders him.

After moving to Costa Rica in late 2005, Solorzano spent three weeks collecting documents for his application. Born in Nicaragua, he went there for his birth certificate. 

Married in Florida, he flew there for his marriage certificate.

Next, he headed to Dallas, where he had lived for 15 years, for his criminal record. He then presented his documents to the acting consul in Dallas – a busy doctor whom he couldn’t track down for two days.

A year later, immigration authorities said his marriage certificate was lost, and Solarzano had to return to Miami for another copy. He and his wife still leave the country every three months to renew their tourist visas. They make do with driver’s licenses until they are issued residency cards.

“If you didn’t know exactly what to do, you could spend your whole life waiting for a permit,” Solorzano said.

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