Expats surprised by contents of immigration bill

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By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Some expats reacted with surprise Monday when they learned about a proposed rewrite of the nation's immigration laws that would mean pensionados and rentistas would need to show a lot more financial depth.

The draft would require pensionados to show they had an income of $2,000 a month, and rentistas would have to show a continuing monthly income of $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.

Some expats said in e-mails to A.M. Costa Rica that they felt they had been blindsided. There is reason to their claim. Representatives from many government and non-governmental groups met for nine months to devise the new draft. It replaced one introduced at the beginning of the Óscar Arias administration.

However, there was no indication that any expats or expat groups were invited to participate in the discussions.

Some expats pointed to a proposal to tax so-called luxury homes as another example of killing the golden goose. The Arias administration will assess a .25 percent tax on homes worth from $150,000 and up. Most homes owned by expats would fall into that category as would condos where the share of the commons area would be included in the value.

The immigration measure is in the Comisión Permanente de Gobierno y Administración. The luxury home tax is on the verge of being approved a second and final time, perhaps this week.

Some callers and e-mail authors cited the current world economic situation as a reason Costa Rican officials might want to go easy on expats.

But some also brought up the basic xenophobia of Costa Ricans and the jealousy that has been building up as land prices rise and more and more well-off North Americans take over choice locations.

There is a certain trend that way in both the Arias administration and the previous Abel Pacheco administration. When the update to the immigration law came to the legislature in 2005 the category of rentista had been stricken.

The rentista status is a major category in which well-off individuals who are not retirement age can come to Costa Rica and remain legally. At the time spokesmen for Pacheco said that the category was being exploited by foreign criminals who wanted to move here. Eventually the category was put back in the bill, which then passed. This is the law that the Arias administration seeks to replace.

At least two e-mail authors were so surprised by the bill that they said they thought the news story Monday was a hoax created by A.M. Costa Rica. One was a Costa Rican. They were given this link to the draft law published Oct. 27 in the La Gaceta official newspaper.

The Arias bill is being touted as another weapon against crime, but one e-mail author pointed out that only rich crooks would be able to settle in Costa Rica if the draft became law.

Expats sent in a handful of letters to be published, but none wanted their name associated with the letter. All cited the economic benefit to Costa Rica in having expats live here. The benefits included job creation, purchasing power and increases in bank deposits.

Several were livid that those who already live here would have to meet the new requirements the next time they have to renew their residencies. That thought they had some legal claim to a grandfather clause. The draft law does not create a safe harbor for these people, although the courts might. The draft says they must meet the requirements in "the present law." The phrase is a bit ambiguous, but the draft seems to be talking about the new law when it goes into effect.

At least one poster to an online discussion group claimed that the draft was just another idea that soon would die on the vine. But this draft law is strongly supported by the Arias administration, which has rallied nearly every public and private body interested in immigration behind it, including the Catholic bishops. It has been the policy of the administration since the president's inauguration to restructure the existing immigration law.

Some e-mail writers said they would take refuge in being a perpetual tourist and leave the country every 90 days to renew their tourism visa. Many expats do that now. But another aspect of the draft law is to strengthen the immigration police, and this could mean a crackdown on those tourists working for pay or running businesses.

Curiously, no rules about perpetual tourists are included in the draft legislation, nor are any specifics on the residency category of inversionista or investor.

Those who drafted the legislation have bigger problems than expats. They are trying to overlay rules on a mostly uncontrolled immigration movement from Nicaragua and provide a framework to fight Central American youth gangs and human trafficking. these topics are stressed in the legislation.

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