A controversial immigration bill that would toughen penalties for undocumented immigrants, and perpetuate the practice of unlimited jail time for those suspected of illegal immigration, is nearing decisive votes in the Legislative Assembly.The proposed law has sounded an alarm among human rights, religious, academic and international groups, who argue the bill takes a hard-line approach to immigration and fails to guarantee rights such as due process and protection for refugees – while proponents of the law say it is a much-needed measure to keep illegal immigrants from draining Costa Rica’s resources.Critics say the bill also fails to acknowledge the vital role immigrants play in Costa Rica’s work force.“Our economy has become dependent on migrant labor,” Citizen Action Party (PAC) legislator Rodrigo Alberto Carazo told The Tico Times. “This is a law that doesn’t take into consideration the country’s economic situation and takes a policing stance that will create backlash and xenophobia.”LAST month, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) objected to a section of the bill dealing with marriages between Costa Ricans and foreigners, and the bill now awaits amendment by the assembly’s Constitutional Review Committee. The assembly approved the “General Law of Immigration” in first debate in May; when it returns to the assembly floor from its revisions in committee, it would return to the first round of debate and, if approved, go on to the second and final vote. If passed, the law will be the first change to Costa Rica’s immigration codes since 1986.The law, proposed in February 2001 by the Executive Branch with the goal of updating Costa Rica’s outdated immigration codes, allows police greater freedom in their attempts to discover and remove illegal immigrants, and punishes employers who hire undocumented workers.The bill gives undocumented immigrants eight months to become legalized or else face deportation. It also grants migratory police the power to enter any business at any time and demand to see employees’ documentation. Employees who fail to provide legal documentation, and their employers, face steeper fines than those in place under the current law.THE law allows those suspected of being illegal immigrants – or those who have already been found guilty of illegal entry and await deportation – to be detained for an undefined period of time, a practice already taking place under the current law.In addition, it would grant the General Immigration Administration the ability to manage the funds it generates, rather than turning them over to the central government as it is currently required to do (TT, June 24). The measure is intended to improve Immigration’s efficiency.The bill does not increase the $600 income requirement for retirees seeking residency here under the pensionados category, as was originally proposed. Foreigners will also still be allowed to apply for residency as rentistas, proving a monthly income of $1,000.SUPPORTERS of the law argue that the number of illegal immigrants has increased in recent years and is a drain on the Social Security System (Caja). According to the daily La Nación, an estimated 200,000 illegal immigrants reside in the country, 150,000 of whom are Nicaraguan.Because of its good economy relative to other Central American countries, Costa Rica is an attractive destination for Central Americans, primarily Nicaraguans, whose country was estimated by the United Nations in 2003 to have a 30% unemployment rate. Costa Rica’s unemployment rate that year was an estimated 6%. Costa Rica is also a popular destination for Colombians, who either come here with the intention of staying and working or as a stopover on their way to the United States.“People (from countries to the south) come here on their way to the United States, and they stay because they see that it’s a good living situation,” said Federico Jiménez, assistant to Social Christian Unity Party legislator Carmen Gamboa, one of the law’s proponents. “They reproduce and have Costa Rican babies who have to have their rights guaranteed. They don’t contribute to the Caja, but they use it. The rest of us are assuming the cost and it’s weakening the system.”HOWEVER, the immigration bill’s numerous opponents have criticized the bill since it was first introduced, and have banded together to propose changes – with limited success.The Forum on Migrant Populations, a group composed of representatives from state, civil society, academic and international organizations and led by the Ombudsman’s Office, has criticized the law for addressing the issue of immigration from a national security rather than a human rights standpoint.“It worries us that the law doesn’t look at the situation from the development perspective and ask how we can incorporate people who are already in the country into the system,” said Gustavo Gátika, a member of the forum and director of immigration affairs for Caritas, the social outreach branch of the Catholic Church that offers immigrants assistance in obtaining legal documentation, among other services.“The law makes it seem like immigrants are guilty for the deterioration of public services, and that’s not necessarily the case,” he said. “It doesn’t state this openly, but if you read between the lines, it’s there.OTHERS argue that immigrants are playing a vital role in the country’s agricultural, domestic and construction sectors. The daily La Nación reported Aug. 13 that many of the estimated 170,000 undocumented immigrants in Costa Rica work on farms. The country’s coffee harvest alone requires about 200,000 workers. Fewer workers could put farmers in a bind, especially during the peak harvest months of November to April.The Forum on Migrant Populations has been reviewing the bill since legislators first began drafting it four years ago, said Katia Rodríguez, director of the special protection division of the Ombudsman’s Office. Since then, the group has taken both formal steps, including presenting legislators with a 45-page document suggesting changes to the law, and informal steps, such as meeting with individual legislators, to call attention to aspects of the law it finds troubling from a human rights perspective.“THESE policies especially affect Nicaraguans, who constitute the largest number of illegal immigrants here in the country… Getting a passport and becoming legal can be expensive, especially for those who are here with their whole family,” Rodríguez said. “People know they are undocumented and will often hide rather than coming into the public light.” Because the law fails to establish a defined period of time immigrants can be detained, it does not guarantee due process to those people, Rodríguez said, adding that since Costa Rica has to assume the cost of transporting a deported person back to his or her country, the law’s allowance for unlimited jail time for those awaiting deportation can sometimes mean up to months in jail if the person came from a country to which transportation is expensive, like an African nation. Deportees must be accompanied by a chaperone to their country of origin, doubling the cost of the trip, and under the current system, Immigration must wait for funds to be approved by the central government, which can slow down the process of deportation.The crime of human trafficking, bringing people across a border against their will, is another topic critics say the law fails to address adequately.ACCORDING to a list of observations presented to lawmakers by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the proposed law does not define clear penalties for those convicted of human trafficking, nor does it adhere to regulations established by a United Nations protocol to prevent and sanction the trafficking of humans, especially women and children, ratified by the assembly in September 2002. The existing law also fails to adhere to these standards.The proposed law introduces new punishments for “coyotes,” those who help people illegally across the border. However, critics say these penalties fall short of meeting established international standards.“Certain aspects of the law called our attention because they weren’t in compliance with international treaties,” said Sofía Salas, an IOM legal analyst. “The law isn’t going to impede the network of human traffickers; it could actually make it stronger and increase the rate of trafficking.”THE OIM’s suggestions that the law be given special protection, such as help returning safely to their country, to victims of human trafficking were not taken into account, Salas said.Refugees constitute another group denied special protection under the law, according to some critics. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has urged Costa Rican legislators to clearly define “refugee” within the law as well as guarantee refugees’ right to work.There are an estimated 12,000 refugees living in Costa Rica, said UNHCR public information director Giovanni Monge. An estimated 8,500 to 9,000 are from Columbia.DESPITE the numerous calls for revisions and additions to the law, the only section the Sala IV called into question is the clause requiring Costa Ricans who marry foreigners to live outside of the country for one year to make sure the marriage is legitimate. Sala IV justices ruled this unconstitutional, and the Constitutional Review Committee is now revising the clause in question.To the disappointment of Forum on Migrant Populations members who proposed changes to the law, no other section was challenged by legislators in the first round of debate.The proposed law could be signed into effect before the end of this legislative session if it leaves the Constitutional Committee and passes in first and second debate.Nonetheless, the law’s critics say they will continue to push for amendments and are already considering proposing reforms in the next legislative session if the law is passed.