Waitresses in Guanacaste, hotel managers in Puerto Viejo and English teachers in San José may be wondering if their jobs are in jeopardy come Aug. 13. That is the day a controversial new Immigration law, approved in November, will go into effect and increase penalties for companies that hire illegal workers.
While many Costa Ricans point to the illegal immigration of Nicaraguans, Colombians and other Latin Americans as the motivation behind the law, countless other foreigners working illegally in the country, hailing from the United States, Canada and Europe, will no doubt be affected by the new law.
“We didn’t write the law thinking of one nationality, rather thinking of the good of Costa Rica, as much from the point of view of Immigration control, as from the point of attracting foreign investment and tourism,” said Johnny Marín, director of the General Immigration Administration.
It’s difficult to say how many North Americans and Europeans are working here without proper permits.
According to Immigration Administration officials, only 410 Canadian, English and U.S. citizens have been granted work permits in the past five years.
Approximately 70,000 Canadians and U.S. citizens live in the country, according to the Association of Residents of Costa Rica (ARCR). However, many of them are retired or have permanent residency, which allows them to work legally.
“For North American and European foreigners, the new rules will be very similar to the current rules. What we have done is strengthen them,”Marín said.
One of the greatest concerns among foreigners working illegally – and the companies that employ them – is immigration raids. However, Marín refuted the notion that these will occur with greater frequency and severity under the new law.
“The abilities of Immigration police in this matter (under the new law) are identical to the current legislation,” Marín said. “We don’t have the capacity to, starting Aug.13, go out to beaches, to hotels, to all corners of the country, hunting foreigners working… taking buses, packing them with Gringos, and bringing them in.”
The law allows Immigration police to enter companies and review payrolls and documentation having to do with the hiring of foreigners. Immigration police can also ask for a person’s documents on the street, in the park or in any public area.
While non-resident foreigners are allowed to carry a photocopy of their passports, authorities reserve the right to accompany them to view the original if necessary.
Following a controversial raid in the impoverished neighborhood of La Carpio in 2004, during which Immigration police used questionable techniques to round up primarily illegal Nicaraguans (TT, June 4, 2004), the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) determined police are not allowed to enclose foreigners, presuming their guilt.
While the Immigration police’s resources are limited, the new law does contemplate the possibility of future funds to contract more personnel and equipment, including cars, motorcycles and boats. And, while the new law doesn’t automatically equate to the hunting of foreigners,Marín said some raids are perfectly possible.
“We should not permit foreigners of any nationality doing things to be paid on the margins of the law,” he said.
To work in Costa Rica, non-resident foreigners must have permission from the Ministry of Labor and the Immigration department, and be hired to do work “in which there is not Costa Rican or resident manpower that could otherwise do it,”Marín said.
For example, in some cases, the Labor Ministry will grant job permits to housekeepers – jobs most Costa Ricans do not want.
The same cannot be said for foreigners working illegally in hotels, Marín said.
The Immigration director acknowledged that the situation is more complicatedwhen it comes to English schools, which often hire undocumented foreigners. “The English taught by a teacher who is a native speaker and has a degree in teaching, is different from English taught by a Costa Rican who learned English in high school,” he said.
However, he added that these are decisions of the Labor Ministry, and the burden is on the person or company requesting the permit to prove that Costa Rican human resources for the job don’t exist.
Job permits can be requested personally, but this bureaucratic process can involve entire days spent at the Labor Ministry and Immigration over the course of a long period of time. Instead, companies often opt to use lawyers.
The entire process costs as much as $1,000 and can take more than a year. “We have just backed away from that completely; we don’t want to deal with it. There is just too much red tape involved,” said Robert Patterson, director of Intensa language school, in the eastern suburb of San Pedro, regarding trying to get work permits for employees. “Now we hire only people who are able to work legally – Costa Ricans and residents.”
This strategy is proving to be more complicated as call centers are absorbing many of the most proficient English speakers.
“We can’t complete with those companies,” Patterson said.
This could create a dangerous cycle, with the demand for English speakers in Costa Rica increasing, but the supply of teachers decreasing, he continued.
On a larger scale, the new law sets a policy of welcoming companies like Intel and Procter & Gamble, which have well-established installations in Costa Rica and “bring a lot of benefits,”Marín said.
“We understand that this implies the entry of many foreigners who will bring us a particular knowledge, which will contribute to the economic, social and cultural development of the country,” he said.
“We also support a selective tourism, the kind of tourism that is really tourism… not the tourism that is tourism disguised, people who stay to look for jobs.”
North Americans are granted an automatic three-month tourist visa when they enter Costa Rica and sometimes stay longer by crossing the border for a few days then returning for another three-month period.
“Perpetual tourists,” as the name implies, do this over and over again while they live and work in the country.
Under the new law, companies that hire illegal workers face increased penalties of two to 12 times the minimum salary, which is about ¢150,000 ($300), equating to a fine of between ¢300,000 ($600) and ¢1.8 million ($3,600).
In addition, people who provide housing to people here illegally can face a fine from one to five times the minimum salary. This article of the law excludes people who house immigrants for humanitarian reasons. The goal is to avoid human trafficking.
“This does not mean that I am going to sanction a hotel that has as a guest someone who is in irregular conditions, although it could be,”Marín said.
Penalties against the worker are the same under the new law as the old. A foreigner working illegally while here on a tourist visa has his or her visa cancelled and is asked to leave the country. If the foreigner does not leave within the allotted time, the person will automatically be deported. Those who are working after their tourist visa has expired are deported. Foreigners who are deported are prohibited from returning to the country for five years, down from 10 in the current law.
Details of how exactly the law will be enforced are still being defined as the Immigration department is working on the law’s accompanying regulations, known as the “reglamento.”
Marín said he hopes to have the first draft of the regulations complete by March
30 so that they can be discussed and revised before the law goes into effect.