San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Mixed Messages On New Immigration Law

The new immigration law went into effect early this week with immigration officials touting simpler processes and foreigner-friendly reforms.

Immigration Administration Director Mario Zamora said the new law would make filing for immigration status transparent and lawyer-free, with an end result of better matching residency status with each individual’s situation in Costa Rica.

“What we are proposing is that every foreigner be in the immigration status that corresponds to that person,” he said. “Students are in the category for students, workers with a worker’s permit, etc.”

Zamora said that foreigners now may renew their status as tourists without ever having to leave the country and that, in the process of applying for residency status, they won’t have to go through the consulate in their home country. Instead, he said, they can process paperwork in Costa Rica.

“What we decided in this situation is that it would be less expensive to be in the country … than to buy a ticket and leave every three months,” Zamora said. “It would be much easier to legalize yourself in Costa Rica than have a tourist status and leave every three months with the cost this implies.”

But a trip to the Immigration Administration revealed a very different story.

With the aim of renewing a tourist status for an additional 90 days, a reporter for The Tico Times spoke with several immigration agents on the floor of immigration services and found that it wasn’t possible to request a 90-day extension.

A Tico Times reader, who asked that his name not be divulged, had a similar experience two days earlier.

“I explained my entire situation to (an immigration agent), and he told me that there wasn’t an option to pay $100 for an extra 90 days and that one had to leave the country no matter what,” the reader said.

Frustrated by a disconnect between the new law as described by the head of immigration and what was taking place at immigration services, the reporter sought out an immigration spokesman.

“The law doesn’t allow (for renovation of tourist status),” said Heidy Bonilla, a longtime spokesman for the Immigration Administration. “People with 90 days here can make the (written) request … but the process would be very slow. It would have to be reviewed by immigration advisors and they would most likely reject it. Why? Because they have over-extended the (incountry) time allowed by law.”

Not only are foreigners unable to renew their tourist status in Costa Rica, but they also must continue to use a foreign consulate to certify paperwork for residency, unless they reside in Chile or Colombia or if there is no Costa Rican consulate in their home country.

“The only option is to bring (documents) from outside,” Bonilla said. “For example, in the situation of the United States, this can be done because the U.S. has various consulates there” and paperwork can be processed.

“If the U.S. Embassy and the Costa Rica Immigration Administration establish an agreement, it might be possible to present documents here.”

Under the new law, foreigners must demonstrate that they contribute to the Costa Rican Social Security System (Caja) in order to apply for residency or renew their residency status, Bonilla confirmed. To pay into the Caja, foreigners can go to any office nationwide and pick an option that best reflects their situation.

Bonilla also said that the “perpetual tourist” system won’t change and that people can continue to leave the country every 90 days to renew their tourist status. If they overstay their three-month limit, they will be asked at the border to pay a fine of $100 for every month they overstayed their visa permit.

If a tourist can’t pay the $100, he or she will not be allowed to return to Costa Rica until after the passage of three times the number of days he or she spent in the country illegally.

Other changes in the immigration law include tougher rules on attaining residency through marriage, a requirement that retirees and investors demonstrate greater financial solvency and the possibility that people in the country illegally may apply for new residency status after paying a fine.

In the coming weeks, a series of immigration regulations will be published to better define procedures under the new law.

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