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Costa Rica’s residency law continues to cause headache

February 24, 2011

SAN JOSÉ – Deciphering Costa Rica’s historically convoluted and unfinished residency law requires the knowledge of a lawyer, the tenacity of a treasure hunter and the patience of a Zen master.

Not only has the country’s law changed four times in the past four decades, but so too has the spirit of the legislation – evolving from a law aimed at encouraging wealthy North Americans to move to Costa Rica, into a legal framework meant to block and regulate the influx of impoverished Latino immigrants, particularly Nicaraguans and Colombians.

According to Ryan Piercy, general manager of the Association of Residents of Costa Rica (ARCR), the main difference between the residency laws in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama is that Costa Rica’s is a defensive measure, while Nicaragua and Panama’s legislation is based on incentives.

“Costa Rica has between 500,000 and 1 million illegal immigrants here; that’s 15 percent of the country’s population,” Piercy said. “Costa Rica’s immigration laws are about them.”

Piercy says there are 38 immigration groups in Costa Rica, but the ARCR is the only organization that actually helps foreigners understand the legal requirements and apply for residency. The other 37 groups are human rights organizations focused on advocating on behalf of illegal immigrants and deportees.

While Nicaragua and Panama pass laws offering tax exonerations and other incentives to foreign residents, Costa Rica has been there, done that.

“Costa Rica passed its law to attract retirees in 1972; they were decades ahead of everyone else,” Piercy said.

The problem now, Piercy said, is that Costa Rica is trying to play it both ways; it still wants to attract wealthy North American and European foreigners, but wants to protect itself and regulate the flood tide of impoverished Nicaraguans. But they can’t have separate laws for gringos and nicas, so instead they’ve created the untenable situation where they are trying to interpret new legislation according to old “reglamentos.”

Costa Rica has twice changed its residency law under each of the previous two administrations, yet continues to use the reglamentos – norms guiding legal procedures – from old residency legislation passed in 1972 and 1980. In addition, there are a series of immigration memorandums that have been issued over the past decade, further muddying the situation.

So while Costa Rica likes to boast that it has a transparent system that is accessible without a lawyer, brave is the aspiring applicant who attempts to navigate those waters alone.

“If you speak fluent Spanish and have lots of patience and put up with lines, by all means do it yourself,” Piercy said.

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