For the estimated one million legal and illegal immigrants living in Costa Rica, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
If a bill submitted to the Legislative Assembly last week is approved, foreigners may be able to apply for residency while in Costa Rica, instead of having to do so from their home country.
Logical, it seems, in a country where more than a fifth of the population is composed of foreigners, and as many as 400,000 immigrants reside illegally, according to Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal.
The change will make the process easier for applicants, and less expensive.
“Everyone saves money,” said Immigration Director Mario Zamora, adding that it costs the average Nicaraguan, for instance, $380 to take time off work and travel home to take care of Immigration applications. Imagine what it costs an Asian or European, he said.
“In exchange, what are we asking for? A $25 annual fee that Immigration will charge that will go to social services,” Zamora told The Tico Times this week.
The 86-page immigration bill would also allow foreigners to renew their residency through Banco de Costa Rica branch offices – part of a larger attempt to outsource and decentralize Immigration processes. (Just this week a much-anticipated program was launched that allows citizens to renew their passports and driver’s licenses at Banco de Costa Rica offices nationwide.)
Much like the labyrinthine stacks and shelves of paper documents scattered about the Immigration Administration’s office in La Uruca, in western San José (TT, Sept. 29, 2006), immigration reform has been a quagmire, politically.
If approved, the new law will end a strange period of limbo caused by the Arias administration’s opposition to, and refusal to fully implement, the existing law. The much criticized law was approved during the administration of President Oscar Arias’ predecessor, Abel Pacheco (2002-2006), and took effect last year shortly after Arias took office despite his attempts to postpone it.
Widely criticized by religious and rights groups, the law cracks down on illegal immigration and increases police rights to search for and deport illegal immigrants. Director Zamora has maintained that Immigration simply doesn’t have the more than $13 million and 671 additional staff members it would need to comply with the law (TT, Sept. 8, 2006).
The law also places additional restrictions on residency processes, including the requirement of application from country of origin. Zamora has said the law makes illegal status an all-too-attractive option given the red tape, inconvenience and cost of becoming legal (TT, April 13).
As if the Arias administration’s attempt to overhaul the Immigration system for the second time in a year wasn’t thorny enough, Immigration corruption scandals and lawsuits have been popping up like weeds since Arias was sworn into office, putting Zamora and other officials to work to tamp down sprouting scandals one way or another. One way is with more reforms.
Not only would the new reform alleviate residency application headaches and deal with a growing crime problem that is seen as closely tied to free-for-all immigration flows, it is also an attempt to confront increasingly visible corruption and loophole problems within the Immigration Administration
If anyone is up for the job of leading the reforms, Zamora is the man.
This is the guy who turned heads when he not only refused bribes from members of the so-called “Chinese mafia,” but also turned the tables on them and used their offer to bust them in a sting (TT, March 9). Zamora emerged as a leader in the fight against corruption and even had people talking of a “Zamora effect,” that is, the hope that the acts of moral leaders would rub off on the not-so-moral in Costa Rica’s oft-criticized government.
Apparently, the effect has been slow to take in Immigration itself. Since Zamora’s act of heroism, Immigration corruption cases have persisted. In one case, roughly 20% of JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport’s entire Immigration force was fingered by U.S. authorities for allegedly going on bribe-collecting trips to the United States in which they dished out illegal passport stamps in exchange for greenbacks.
But Zamora remains optimistic. The new immigration reform would include more oversight of Immigration officials and a 5% salary raise for everyone – perhaps a tiny boost considering the airport’s head of Immigration, for instance, barely makes more than $350 a month.
Zamora is hoping the new law will move through the Legislative Assembly as fast as possible – a dire task considering an already swamped legislative agenda.
Zamora’s new proposal has already won over at least one ally.
“I’m all for it,” said Ryan Piercy, manager of the Association of Residents of Costa Rica, which offers seminars, legal services and advice for foreigners interested in living here. “Submitting (residency applications) through the consul is problematic.”
Though critics have complained that the fee is unjustified, since residents already pay income, gas, sales and other taxes, Piercy isn’t opposed to it, calling it just “one more fee.”
He said excruciatingly long waits to renew residency is the “biggest complaint” the association receives from its members, and he hopes outsourcing the renewal process to Banco de Costa Rica branches will relieve the system.
“To invest here, people want to be able to be legal. A lot of people are like, ‘I can’t invest here if I don’t know if I can stay here.’ It’s a major issue we’ve been trying to get across to the government for a long time… Up till now, it’s been ‘come and bring your money and then we’ll see,’” he said.
Immigration put a moratorium of sorts on residency renewals last year because of an overtaxed system, which caused some angst among foreigners with expired cédulas (residency I.D. documents) who have to carry around a copy of a government decree that effectively extended everyone’s residency renewal dates by a year. This week, the government extended the decree for another year.