Flory Hernández, a 42-year-old housekeeper, was desperate.
Jobless, she couldn’t afford supplies for her diabetic mother, who was in the hospital with heart problems. When a young man showed up at her house offering ¢25,000 (about $50) to sign a piece of paper agreeing to marry a Colombian named Fabio, she accepted.
Today, three years later,Hernández is still married to Fabio. They have never met.
“If I knew what would happen, I never would have gotten married,” Hernández said.
“A ton of things have been complicated.” Such marriages of convenience – an easy way for foreigners, often with criminal ties, to gain residency in Costa Rica – are a sticky problem for the Immigration Administration as well as for the spouses, usually poor Ticas, they victimize. But an ambitious bill to crack down on such marriages reached a roadblock last week in the Legislative Assembly, thwarting the last in a series of efforts by Immigration Director Mario Zamora to close this immigration loophole.
“We do not have the slightest doubt that this project is historical,” said Zamora, speaking at a press conference last week with the two legislators who proposed the bill, Assembly President Fransisco Pacheco of the National Liberation Party (PLN) and newly independent Evita Arguedas (see separate news brief).“It really comes to straighten out immigration and the judicial system.”
The bill was sent with high hopes last week to a 19-member commission that can pass laws without sending them to the full legislature. But the project has an enemy: Oscar López, legislator for the Access Without Exclusion Party (PASE). López, who proposed a similar bill in August of 2006, has vowed to use every tool in his power to stop the Arguedas-Pacheco bill. He presented a series of trámites late last week that put the bill’s survival in question.
“The project is really mine,” he said “I’m fighting for the right that (my) ideas be respected. They could have made suggestions to my project, not do what they did: Throw mine in the trash.”
Arguedas’ office counters that her bill is substantially different. Both bills would repeal an article in the Family Code that allows lawyers to arrange marriages between a Costa Rican and a foreigner living outside the country.
This would prevent many marriages of convenience. But the Arguedas-Pacheco bill would also reform the Penal Code to criminalize such marriages. The bill carries a 5-7 year prison term for those who arrange such marriages, and 2-4 years for spouses.
Some 1,700 marriages of convenience are now in tramité, Zamora said, and authorities have identified 54 lawyers who arrange such ties. The lawyers charge foreigners about $10,000, pay Costa Ricans between $30 and $50, and pocket the difference. People who arrange such marriages target vulnerable Costa Ricans who need quick money, such as drug addicts and relatives of hospital patients.
Prisoners are offered false promises of freedom in exchange for signing marriage papers, the immigration director said.
Zamora has been fighting these marriages for months. In early July he proposed an overarching immigration bill that would require foreigners to live with their Costa Rican spouses for at least two years before they could become legal residents (TT, July 6). The bill is stuck in the Legal Affairs Commission. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber (Sala IV) has sanctioned Zamora for denying residency to foreigners whom he suspected got married just to get legal (TT, July 6).
Under the new bill, Zamora could report a marriage of convenience to the Prosecutor’s Office, which could then investigate and arrest the spouses, the lawyer, the witnesses, and anyone else involved in the arrangement. If the Costa Rican unwittingly enters a marriage and later reports it, he or she could get reduced jail time or none at all. The foreigner would get jail-time and lose his residency in Costa Rica.
Zamora says marriages of convenience can be easily identified because the spouses do not know each other, and often have never met. “We’re not going to measure the degree of love… just (judge) by the basic elements of how well they know each other.”
Not all women in these marriages are innocent victims. Some are savvy entrepreneurs who make money by marrying foreigners, then divorce them within days under special circumstances, said Gerardo Chaves, who heads Arguedas’ office.
Still, many women do find themselves unwittingly trapped in such marriages, and the consequences are harsh. About 50 women – all in marriages of convenience – planned to attend the press conference last week, but they cancelled after receiving threats, Arguedas said. Of the eight who did attend, several shied away from the press, withdrawing into their hoods and draping jackets over their heads.
These marriages bring legal hassles, too. The women often cannot apply for alimony because they do not know who or where their husbands are, said ex-legislator Gerardo Trejos of the Democratic Force Party (1994-1998), who worked with Pacheco and Arguedas to draft the bill.
Meanwhile, children born while the woman is married are entered in the Civil Registry as belonging to the husband, even if he is not the biological father, said Trejos, who now heads the publishing company Editorial Juricentro. This bars women from demanding child support from the real father.
Seeking benefits from the state is also hard, Trejos added. A woman listed as married in the Civil Registry often must apply for state benefits with her husband – or at least submit information about him.
Hernández couldn’t get a housing grant from the National Housing Mortgage Bank (BAHNVI) because she knows almost nothing about her husband. And the Mixed Institute for Social Aid (IMAS) turned down her petition for benefits earmarked for single women, she said.
“I want to be single,” she said. “I want things to be like before.”
The bill would make annulment easier because Immigration could get involved through the Prosecutor’s Office, instead of leaving the Costa Rican to go through a family judge. But the Pacheco-Arguedas bill is not retroactive. Even if it passed, Zamora would not be able to touch Hernández’s case or hundreds of others.
Meanwhile, he has another problem on his hands. Lawmaker López said he would delay the bill by proposing countless revisions and even challenge it in the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV).
“I am challenging (Pacheco and Arguedas) in two directions. One, that my project is respected and approved. Two, that their project is not,” he said.