A slew of recent changes at the Costa Rican Immigration Administration has provoked a long list of questions from readers of The Tico Times, some of whom express skepticism that the promises being made will actually become reality.
Anyone who has waited in endless lines at the immigration offices or collected the reams of seemingly unnecessary forms dispensed there knows that the process is overly bureaucratic and success is as fleeting as it is in a game of Go Fish.
Last week The Tico Times sat down with Director of Immigration Mario Zamora to sort through the new immigration law and other procedural changes.
TT: Tourists can now renew their status without ever having to leave the country. What’s the procedure for doing so?
MZ: All they need to do is meet the requirements (see box) and come to the immigration office.
But that was the case with the old law, and it’s also the case under the new law.
The principal change under the new law is that, beginning in March of 2010, foreigners are not required to initiate the immigration process through a Costa Rican consulate in their home country. They will be able to process their documents through the Immigration Administration here. This could save them at least $300 in airfare required to present their papers in their home country. This is a great expense and a huge inconvenience. But (under this new law), the process can be done entirely within Costa Rica.
We are working towards simplifying procedures in order to encourage legality here.
Something that our readers have found very interesting is a memorandum your office released which says a foreigner who owns a home worth more than $200,000 can solicit residency as an investor.
Exactly. This is a big change that we are implementing as we speak.
When will this option be available for foreigners?
Right now. This has been in effect since Aug. 28. If you want to register as an investor, all you need to do is certify the purchase of a home with a value of $200,000 or more.
What do you need as proof that the house is worth at least $200,000?
When, as an investor, you register for tax purposes, you tell the government the value of your property. In order to apply for residency, you need proof that you registered a home worth at least $200,000.
The opportunity to pursue residency as a home owner is not part of the new law, right?
Correct. This is a change that anticipates the spirit of the law in order to better facilitate it.
What is the purpose of this change?
In few words, the (new policy) facilitates the process of legalizing investors in Costa Rica. In addition, we have noted the situation of many people from the United States.
They have purchased assets in Costa Rica, but their immigration status continues to be that of a tourist. They can remain here only for a period of 90 days. Every three months, they have to pay to leave the country. Now (under these changes) they can stay.
The daily La Nación reported in October that the taxes on luxury homes (those valued at more than $172,000) would go up as of Oct. 1. Do these immigration changes have anything to do with collecting taxes?
This has nothing to do with the immigration law. They are two independent things. Even if you have tourist status, you have to pay the tax (on a luxury home).
Another change means that people who are soliciting residency must now register with their embassies, and that can cost as much as $30. What is the reason for this change?
We’ve done this for two reasons. The first is to protect the rights of foreigners. Remember, the mission of consulates is to protect the rights of their citizens in the place where they live. For example, the U. S. Embassy’s purpose is to protect the rights of U.S. citizens living in Costa Rica. If it sees a negative situation, it reports the situation to the Foreign Ministry. The same with the Mexican Embassy; it protects the rights of Mexicans living here. This is their legal function in accordance with the Vienna Convention, which regulates the role of diplomats.
The second motive has to do with security. Who knows a foreigner better than his or her own authorities? There have been a number of cases involving expatriates who are in the country legally but are trying to escape justice in their home countries. At present, there is no way for their government to know they are in Costa Rica.
It also gives us assurance that the person applying for residency is, in fact, who he says he is and not assuming a stolen identity. We have seen a number of cases where someone steals a passport and assumes the identity of the victim.
What if a foreigner doesn’t have an embassy or consulate here?
They don’t need to do this.
In general, why is this new law better than the one that preceded it?
From our point of view, the old law was very restrictive and close-minded. The former law only worked to control how people came into the country. It was a difficult, bureaucratic law and ended up costing foreigners a lot of money to legalize their status in Costa Rica. The law recently approved in the Legislative Assembly is more balanced. It balances the rights of foreigners with immigration control. Our intent is to simplify the process and make it less expensive. We want to make it so that foreigners don’t need to hire lawyers.
What we want to do is recover a direct relationship with the foreigners so that they don’t need a lawyer. Many of the bad experiences I have heard about are generated by the interference of lawyers.
We make two promises: To work directly with the foreigner and to resolve situations quickly.
Under the new law, we are working to ensure the residency process does not take longer than 90 days. This is our institutional promise.
Before, it could take a year to get all the paperwork together. And when you asked for an appointment, it might have been scheduled a year and a half in the future.
We had operational problems in the administration, and those were transferred to the users. Now, we are working with digitalized, advanced systems, which will help us improve the process.
This has been a huge investment for Costa Rica, right?
There has been much investment in improving immigration. Costa Rica has allocated $12 million to improve our technology and introduce better ways to do our work. This will help us meet our pledge to speed up procedures.
Is there work still to be done? Are their things you would still like to see changed about the immigration law?
Frankly speaking, no. We are comfortable with this new legislation. We feel that it will be significant for Costa Rica.
It’s important to note that Costa Rica is a country of immigrants. Look at the numbers. We are a country of 4.5 million people. We have 600,000 foreigners living legally in Costa Rica. We have between 300,000 and 450,000 foreigners living illegally here. Two million tourists visit us each year. Of the rest, 8 percent were born outside of Costa Rica, but have been naturalized here. This goes to show that we are a country with a great number of immigrants. If you analyze the situation, you will see that immigration is the strongest force for development in Costa Rica. Therefore, we have the obligation to create conditions in which this motor of development functions well. And much of this is made possible with the new law.
What other improvements should we be aware of?
We are undertaking the huge task of translating immigration papers to other languages so that the user who doesn’t speak Spanish can go through the process (beginning in March). By taking this measure, we want to give a message of hospitality to people who don’t speak Spanish.
as an Investor
1. Letter to the director of the Immigration Administration and signed by the foreigner who is seeking temporary residency as an investor. The letter must be authenticated by a Costa Rican consulate or by the official receiving the petition.
2. The letter must contain:
a. Reasons for seeking temporary residency and an explanation of activities in the country.
b. Complete first and last name, nationality, date of birth, profession, address in Costa Rica, and names and nationalities of the parents of the applicant.
c. Location or fax number, in order to receive notification.
d. Information about supporting documentation.
e. Signature and date.
f. Passport number.
3. An investment proposal of at least $200,000. The proposal must relate to investment contributing to economic or social development of the country. The investment should be described in detail and include an explanation of what is contained in the investment and a schedule of activities that describe the path of the investment.
4. Certification by an accountant demonstrating the applicant’s financial solvency and stating the business plan or showing how the project furthers the objectives of the proposal.
5. Proof of an account that contains project funding.
6. Birth certificate. This should be presented to a consulate for appropriate authorization and submitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be sealed.
7. Certified criminal record that shows no convictions in country of origin or where applicant has resided for the past three years. This should be presented to a consulate for appropriate authorization and submitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be sealed.
8. Photocopy of passport and original passport. This must be presented to the immigration official who receives the documents.
9. Fingerprints from the Public Security Ministry.
10. Three recent passport-sized photographs.
11. Fiscal stamps: ¢125 ($.21) for the application and ¢2.50 (less than a U.S. penny) for each sheet.
12. Receipt of deposit in the Bank of Costa Rica account number 242480-0 of $30.
13. All documents that are in a language other than Spanish must be accompanied by a translation by an official translator.
14. Completed form of affiliation, which can be obtained on the Immigration Administration’s Web site: www.migracion.go.cr
SOURCE: Immigration Administration