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The New Costa Rica Immigration Law

August 13th, 2009

migracion de costa rica

It is hard to not say I told you so…  I cannot.   Sorry!

On January 11, 2009, in response to a large number of emails and phone calls, I blogged about the proposed immigration law. One online newspaper told concerned expats, future residents and readers that the new law would be passed immediately… before the Christmas (2008) break!  They said it would be retroactive and even those folks already here legally would be affected and have to comply. Everyone panicked.

I tried to explain that nothing happens that fast in this country and that panic sells newspapers and increases readership and thus sells advertising. I also explained that it is against Costa Rica law to have a new law be retroactive. I suggested a wait and be patient approach.

Well that was January and this is August and yes, finally, the Asamblea Legislativa (the congress) has passed the new Ley de Migración (immigration law) which should for years influence the rights and responsibilities of foreigners coming to live in Costa Rica.  Note I use the word foreigner and not the words American, Gringo, US Citizen or other such word as despite our often enormous sense of self importance, this law is designed to affect anyone from any nation who seeks to reside in Costa Rica on a legal and permanent basis. It covers a lot more as well.  I held off a few days trying to get a more complete picture of this new law, but sadly, reliable details are not forthcoming so for those of you who are interested in this topic, read on!

First, I must say that everything I have read about the new law is just plain fair and is, in the years that I have lived here,  this is about the only law that got  it almost 100% right. It falls a little bit short of fully protecting Costa Rica, but I’ll discuss that later.

OK so what is in this law?  Here are the salient points!

  • Costa Rica is getting tough on the trafficking of persons. This is now a criminal offense with much stronger penalties.  Trafficking can be for purposes of slavery, prostitution, or simply smuggling people from, to or through Costa Rica to other countries.
  • Pensionados, those who receive a guaranteed income from US Social Security, a State pension fund or other “guaranteed” source, will be now required to show proof of $1,000 per month (US) income. There will be no deposit required.  This is spot on as it is just no longer possible to live here for $600.00 per month, the old requirement. All but a few recipients of social security should qualify easily.  The spouse is included in the $1,000 figure.
  • Rentistas,  those who wish to live here legally but are too young or otherwise do not qualify for a pension like social security, will now deposit  $2,500.00 per month ( a one time deposit of $150,000.00 to cover five years).   I am presuming it will work the old way.  (Not 100% sure yet).  However the $2,500 per month is correct. Besides being 2.5 times the old $1,000 per month, this figure includes immediate family members and that may actually save money for a family with kids. However, it would seem to penalize single persons wishing to move here and thus is one of my few concerns  regarding this law.
  • Marriages between Costa Rica citizens and foreigners can be brought under far closer scrutiny.  This has been a serious issue for years, with numerous marriages of convenience allowing low-lifes (and maybe some not-so-low-lifes) to purchase a Costa Rica spouse they perhaps have never met and immediately be eligible for Permanent Residency. Now a couple under investigation may have to  prove to immigration (migracion) that they are a couple, have been through a courtship-  both persons living in this country. In other words.. it’s love and not a scam!
  • A new immigration police force will be formed, composed of specially trained officers from the Fuerza Pública plus existing members.  With this is the stronger enforcement which should allow Costa Rica to deal far more efficiently with the many illegals (often referred to as perpetual tourists) living here.  This new law will finally allow for active tracking of these scofflaws as opposed to the random raids now so popular. Costa Rica has a significant problem with illegals from Nicaragua,  the USA and Canada and with luck, there should be enough enforcement power to handle this problem.
  • Owners and operators of hotels will now be required to maintain registers of all guests with residency documentation and backup, presumably similar to those in Europe.  Will they be required to hold the guest’s passport?  Unclear…  and we will not know until we all see the actual law. There was talk also of heavy penalties to employers of illegals and I have thus found nothing addressing that.
  • It also appears that a new court will be formed to deal solely with issues and appeals of immigration.
  • Foreigners will now have to join the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social or the CAJA as it is known.  This is the socialized medical plan of Costa Rica also covering pensions. CAJA provides medical care for all members without regard to pre-existing conditions and this is the other area where I believe the diputados  made an error.  While it is one thing to control the pre-existing rules within one country (like the USA for example) and between insurance carriers in that country, it is quite another to open the CAJA system to the world and allow anyone with a very costly illness to “buy” unlimited medical care for as little at $600.00 per month.  I fear this may come back and bite those legislators on their collective butts.
  • Show me the $$$.  Where is the money coming from?  That is always a fun and interesting question in Costa Rica.  Sadly, the answer often is…  there is none.  There does, however, appear to be a provision affecting all immigration transactions (tramite) that may now carry a charge, in one report, $25.00 per tramite.  This is not a verified fact.
  • Amnesty? One source indicates the the president of Costa Rica will now have the right to grant residency.  This was interpreted to mean that the president could grant a massive amnesty to illegals now here in the country.  I am not sure I agree with that leap of logic though it may be correct. After having asked around, I cannot very anything, but there is precedent for amnesty as it was twice given in the 90’s, in essence granting legal residency to all those who could prove they had lived here illegally for a specified period of time. Could this happen again?  Quien sabe?  It would certainly make the job of the new immigration police force a lot easier as they could start with a clean slate.

So what is next? When is this law? So why is this all not just clear?  For that, you must understand how things work here.

The next step as that the law must be signed by the president of Costa Rica, Don Oscar Arias.  Once that has been done, the law will be published in La Gaceta.  The law goes into effect six months after being published there. So that’s when we will  know everything right?  Nope, and this is a point that is often simply impossible to teach those from other countries, especially those from the USA where the law is the law.

Law is NOT law here. Yes, there is a law, but that law is then  interpreted by the agency involved, in this case immigration. They will then interpret and enforce this law as they see fit and enforce it as they see fit.  If someone does not like it, they will take it  to the Supreme Court and THEY will interpret it.   Sound easy?  Nope… because in the past, various government agencies have paid not the least attention to the supreme court decisions and have just continued to operate as they had before.  This has happened several times with immigration since I have lived here.  This time though, they have a pretty good law and the director of immigration seems to be an intelligent man… so we shall see!  In any case, the supreme court eventually gets torqued and starts handing out threats of jail, monetary penalties, etc. at which point the government agency involved does pay attention.. This issue just seems to make Gringos go crazy as it is anathema to the structured and well defined laws in the USA. Hint… If you are going to live here, you must understand that you are not in Kansas anymore and that what me be clear to you, is not clear at all.