The sheet-metal shacks crowd the corner of a construction site, pop up along rivers and stack atop each other on hillsides.
They exist in every developing country in the world, from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the slums of Calcutta.
In Costa Rica, they house the Nicaraguan workers – the cheap-labor support unit for the country’s rampant economic development.
According to Immigration, 273,374 Nicaraguans officially entered Costa Rica in 2006, a statistic that has risen every year since 136,905 Nicaraguans crossed the border in 2000. And every year, thousands stay.
Miguel, 21, lives in “El Precario,” an out of-the-way Nica neighborhood in Playas del Coco, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste. Originally from León, he has not left Costa Rica since he came here three years ago. Like others in this story, he declined to give a last name for fear of prosecution.
“As long as you don’t look for problems, you won’t have any,” he says. Nicaraguans can apply for a 30-day tourist visa at their local Costa Rican consulate. The visa costs $20 and does not allow them to work. North Americans, by contrast, are granted a free 90-day tourist visa upon entering Costa Rica.
For overstaying his visa, Miguel could be deported and banned from Costa Rica for five years.
“Up here, we’re removed from everything. We don’t leave, except to go to work,” says Miguel.
María, a housecleaner, arrived with her husband, a construction worker, four years ago. She earns ¢40,000 colones (about $72) every 15 days, half the minimum monthly wage in Costa Rica but over twice that of Nicaragua. Although neither has a work permit, they return to Nicaragua every 45 days to renew their tourist visas. María insists that her 30-day visa allows her to stay 45 days in Costa Rica.
In Costa Rica, it is up to employers to request work permits for their foreign employees. “I asked my boss for a work permit,” says María. “But she prefers our current arrangement.”
Normally, the employee’s health insurance and pension are covered by payments made by Costa Rican employers equaling 9.25 percent of each employee’s salary to the Social Security System, along with 5.5 percent from the worker and 0.25 percent from the state.
María doesn’t have health insurance, but returns to Nicaragua for health care, where she says it’s cheaper.
According to the Costa Rican Labor Ministry, the minimum salary for a farm worker is ¢156,624 (about $280) a month, a wage adjusted every six months. The comparative minimum salary in Nicaragua is 1,179.7 córdobas a month (about $59).
The CIA World Factbook estimates that unemployment was higher in Costa Rica than in Nicaragua in 2007 (4.6 percent versus 3.6 percent), but that 46.7 percent of the Nicaraguan work force was underemployed, meaning workers held positions they were overqualified for. Nicaraguans earn the third lowest per capita income in the Western Hemisphere.
Miguel says that he can make ¢200,000 a month as a construction worker, but he hasn’t worked for two weeks. He estimates that about 20 percent of his neighbors in El Precario are legal residents of Costa Rica. Through June 30, 2007, the Immigration Administration had granted residency to 222,990 Nicaraguans.
A migration reform bill is currently making its way through the Legislative Assembly. If passed, it would help foreign workers obtain work permits without having to leave the country. The Immigration Administration would not give any more specifics about its contents.
Peñas Blancas in northwestern Costa Rica, is the only legal overland border crossing between the two countries, and the secondlargest person port, with more than 410,000 foreigners passing through in 2006, second only to the JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport northwest of San José.
On a rainy recent morning, semitrailer trucks lined up for kilometers on the Costa Rican side, waiting to cross, while peregrine travelers shuffled across the muddy, imaginary line easily.
Once on the Nicaraguan side, they crowded around the concrete immigration huts, passports in hand. Some formed a line while others cut it.
“I’m returning from a weeklong vacation,” says one Tico tourist as he awaits his exit stamp. “Nicaragua is a beautiful country.”