Administration publishes new immigration document.

Administration publishes comprehensive document New immigration draft would require more income

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By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Arias administration has come up with a rewrite of its proposed immigration law that jacks up financial requirements for pensionados to $2,000 a month and for rentistas to $5,000.

Pensionados now must show a monthly income of at least $600. Rentistas must show a continuing income of at least $1,000 a month.

The law also appears to say that, if passed, pensionados and rentistias will be required to meet the new, higher requirements when they renew their permission to stay in the country.

The proposed law, which the legislature published in the La Gaceta official newspaper last week, also would require that all foreigners, whatever their status, temporary or permanent, would have to join the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social. That agency provides medical care and other services, but many expats already have medical coverage.

Tourists would not be required to join the Caja, and the proposed law is silent on so-called perpetual tourists, who live in Costa Rica and circumvent the spirit of the tourism category by leaving the country every 90 days. The law also is silent on the category of inversionista except to list it as one of the temporary classes of residency.

The law also established fines for those who employ illegal residents, including tourists who do not have the right to work here.  Fines can range over 600,000 colons (about $1,090) for every illegal employee.

The immigration department would have six months instead of the current three months to process residency applications.

The tone of the law has changed from a simple summary of immigration rules to what the preface calls a judicial instrument against criminality and corruption in immigration.

For expats, the news will be troubling. Javier Zavaleta of Residency in Costa Rica noted that the $2,000 a month requirement is near the top of what U.S. citizens could get as Social Security payments. Many U.S. citizens use their Social Security income to show they have the finances to live here as a pensionado. The U.S. Embassy staff also has produced Social Security documents that the immigration department accepts.

Zavaleta, who brought the changes to the attention of A.M. Costa Rica, said he would be posting a summary to his Web site. He said he was bracing for a flood of applicants who wanted to take advantage of the existing law in case the proposal is passed.

"I think the proposed income requirements for the pensionado and rentista programs are outrageously high," Zavaleta said, "and that they will only serve to drive away those individuals and families who are considering Costa Rica as their retirement destination. I can’t imagine how the Asamblea arrived at those amounts. It’s very disappointing."

The current rentista regulation says an applicant in that category must have a continual monthly income of at least $1,000. Informally the immigration department accepts proof that an applicant has $60,000 in a bank.

If the proposal is passed and immigration officials insist on proof of five years of income, an applicant would have to show a bank deposit of $300,000 or an investment generating at least $5,000 a month. An applicant would need to have about $1.7 million in savings at the current rates of return to show a continual income of $5,000 a month.

The country has been plagued by fake marriages contracted by powers of attorney with willing Costa Ricans, most of whom received pay for agreeing to the scam. The proposed law provides that a foreigner seeking to gain residency here with a marriage to a Costa Rican has to show that the union has been consummated. In addition, the proposed law spells out year-to-year requirements that the couple stays together. The foreign spouse could get residency only after three years.

For tourists who overstay their visas, the proposal law would assess $100 for each month in excess of the legal period. Another section, speaking about those who overstay their visa period in general,  specifies a fine of $25 per month but the individual would not be able to return to the country for three times the period of illegality. Legal tourists would be able to extend their stay here for 90 days more by paying $100, the proposal says.

The proposal also lengthens the time someone staying here legally as a temporary resident, pensionado, rentista or inversionista, could seek permanent residency from the current three years to five.

The measure is in the Comisión Permanente de Gobierno y Administración. If passed, the law would update one passed in 2005 during the Abel Pacheco administration.  The Arias administration was critical of the 2005 law and called in draconian.

So shortly after taking office, President Óscar Arias Sánchez and his ministers drafted a new proposal that was supposed to be more observant of human rights. Among other objections, the Catholic bishops expressed concern that those running refugees for illegal immigrants would face legal action. The proposed law exempts from prosecution those sheltering illegals for humanitarian reasons. But ordinary hotel owners could be punished for housing illegals.

The preamble said that this new proposal comes after more than 800 hours of discussions among officials, the Defensoría de los Habitantes, human rights groups, non-governmental organizations, the state universities, employers, and others.

The new draft gives more authority to the director general de Migración y Extranjería. The Consejo de Migración is reduced to an advisory body. That group had trouble meeting because funds were not available to pay per diems for members. The consejo used to decide on residency applications.

The draft would award 7 billion colons (about $13 million) to restructure the agency to carry out the new law.  The proposal also includes a 5 percent raise for immigration employees, except for the director and the subdirector.

The draft is highly detailed, although it does give power to draw up regulations to address specific points. It contains 274 separate sections. As in previous drafts, the immigration police would be raised to the level of the Fuerza Pública but report to the immigration director.

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