San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Lax Immigration Enforcement Alarms Watchdog

The state’s failure to enforce immigration laws threatens national security, a government report found this week.

Immigrants are outstaying their visas, deported foreigners are reentering the country, and the state’s database on immigrants is outdated and unreliable, the Comptroller General’s Office concluded after reviewing data from July 2006 to April 2008.

“The big problem and the big call to attention is that this administration does not have effective immigration controls,” said Lilliam Marín, head of the department that conducted the study.

Immigration Director Mario Zamora said some illegal immigration is inevitable. But he recognized the system has fundamental flaws.

“For more than 20 years, this country has not invested enough in immigration,” he said.

Recognizing that weakness, the report ordered the Public Security Ministry, which oversees immigration, to give the department more money, technology and staff. The ministry must present an investment plan by the end of October.

Foreigners can enter Costa Rica in ten places: two international airports, two seaports and six land checkpoints on the Panamanian and Nicaraguan borders, Zamora said.

Immigration officials take down information about each person who enters or leaves Costa Rica and send it to a central database, which is used to spot immigration irregularities and find or prosecute suspected criminals.

But the database cannot be trusted, the report found.

“For example, it looks like one person went to Panama, when he never did. Or another person’s trip to Nicaragua never appears,” Marín said.

Zamora said he knows the database is faulty, in part because most information is collected manually and compiled from nine different sources. In December and January, Immigration officials installed an electronic system at JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport west of San José to gather data on travelers.

Immigration is now working to replicate the system at DanielOduberInternationalAirport in Liberia in Guanacaste in the northwest, as well as at Paso Canoas on the Panamanian border and Peñas Blancas on the western Nicaraguan border. Still, the report found that even this electronic system is flawed and should be reviewed.

A second problem is the falsification of documents, the report said. People from 93 countries, from Pakistan to Colombia, need a consular visa to enter Costa Rica for 30 days. But the “visa,” a simple ink stamp on one’s passport, can be easily falsified.

Plus, consulates do not provide Costa Rican authorities with lists of authorized travelers, according to the report.

Zamora acknowledged that immigrants are entering the country with fake papers.

Ideally, he said, consulates should have equipment to photograph and fingerprint every traveler so that “we can know that the person in Juan Santamaría is the same as the person who received authorization in the consulate.”

Weak controls allow foreigners to reenter Costa Rica even after being deported, the report found. In one case, Colombian Luis Alberto Pacheco, then 21, entered Costa Rica illegally in April 2007. Zamora signed a deportation order in June that banned him from the country for five years. But Pacheco again crossed the Panamanian border into Costa Rica a month later.

Hosman Alfredo Ruiz, a 22-year-old Nicaraguan farmer, crossed the northern border illegally in July 2007 using a fake residency card that he bought for $50. Even after he was arrested and deported, Ruiz made his way back to Costa Rican soil, according to the report.

“These cases show the fragility of the country’s controls on entry,” the report said. Not only are immigrants entering the country illegally, but legal immigrants are outstaying their visas, the report found. For example, 848 people who entered Costa Rica with a 30-day visa in August 2007 stayed in the country for 150 to 300 days.

Immigration has no system for monitoring foreigners and kicking them out when their visa expires or when their applications for residency are denied, the report found.

Authorities also have failed to keep tabs on the 600,000 foreigners who live here legally. Every year since 2005, Immigration has automatically renewed “temporary” residency cards without determining whether each resident has good reason to stay in Costa Rica.

Immigration stopped that practice in June. But the report calculated that immigration officials, working at their current pace, will need three years to renew every card, finishing after many expire.

Zamora said he largely agreed with the report’s findings, and he welcomed its demand that Immigration get more resources.

The 2008 budget is about $10 million, but Zamora said his agency needs an additional one-time $12 million grant to install new technology. Repairing and rebuilding immigration checkpoints would cost another $18 million.

“This is a wizard’s job,” he said. “The resources are scanty and the needs are very great.”

Still, he said, some of the weaknesses identified in the report are inevitable. Some 200,000 foreigners live here illegally, making up one quarter of the total foreign population, he said. Immigration turns a blind eye to the vast majority and deports only those who violate criminal laws.

“If I go to the Carpio,” a shantytown where many illegal Nicaraguan immigrants live, “I could leave with 60 buses full of people without papers,” Zamora said. “(But) it doesn’t make sense to initiate deportation proceedings against 200,000 people. Not even the United States does that.”


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