Immigration/Residency Law and the Legal Tar Pit

Once upon a time, in a land far away, I worked as a systems analyst and computer programmer.

The Courthouse in La Mancha... Don Quixote, anyone?

One of the things that troubled me was the fact that nobody, and I mean not one person, understood how the system worked, how it all fit together, or exactly what it was supposed to do. I first heard the phrase “nailing Jello to the wall” used to describe the work we did as systems analysts and programmers. I get a similar feeling of bewilderment when I try to understand how ‘the law’ works here in Costa Rica.

To actually nail Jello to a wall, the first thing you need is some nice, firm, preferably dried up Jello. Costa Rican law is more like Jello before you put it in the refrigerator to set. Now I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, but I do KNOW a few lawyers. One is a friend who used to practice in Florida. When I ask him about Costa Rican law, he just shakes his head, laughs, and asks me PLEASE not to ask him about the law here. Please.

Since I have no reputation to protect, I feel free to weigh in. Some of my information may be somewhat dated, so don’t use this as a reference source. I did what I could with what I could find and understand. But onward. The Costa Rica system consists of 4 branches. Like the USA it has Legislative, Executive and Judicial. It also has an Electoral branch that runs the elections. Since the elections are over for now, we’ll concentrate on the other three.

Jello nailed to a wall. Does not always work this well...

The Legislative Assembly is one house, unlike the USA. It is divided into numerous committees. To pass a new law, the new law must be submitted to the appropriate committee, where it will be analyzed and probably amended. When the committee is done fooling around with it, it goes to the whole legislature for debate (3 consecutive days). If it is passed, it is sent to the President AND the appropriate cabinet minister to be signed or vetoed. Assuming it is signed, the law is published in the official legal newspaper. Now the fun begins. The new law goes to the unit of government responsible for enforcing the law who then publish their own set of rules for how the new law will be enforced. The kicker is that the rules for enforcement can be totally outside the scope of the law itself. Not only that, these ‘rules’ that are supposed to be published may not ever get around to being published.

So we have a law with rules that may or may not be published and which may or may not be consistent with the law itself. You don’t suppose this might lead to a little confusion and erratic interpretation and enforcement, do you? Naw….

The Costa Rican Supreme Court, or Sala IV, would be one busy place for this reason alone. But don’t get the mistaken impression that once Sala IV makes a decision, it is going to be carried out. There have been numerous occasions when the agency/department has had to be sued to actually carry out Sala IV decisions!

My name's Friday.

So let’s recap a little. The Legislature passes a law. The people in charge of enforcing it write up (or just make up) their own interpretation and ‘enhancements’ of how the law is to be enforced. Sala IV may declare the law unconstitutional. Sala IV may declare the enforcement rules unconstitutional. The enforcing agency may or may not follow Sala IV’s decision. The enforcing agency may have to be sued to follow the Sala IV ruling. You got all that? Crystal clear? Yeah, me neither.
To add to all this wonderfulness, we have the ‘interesting’ law enforcement set up that is unique (I hope) to Costa Rica. There are numerous law enforcement agencies with overlapping duties and authority. We’ll go into more detail about the various agencies in a future post. Suffice it to say that the system is confusing and not very efficient.

President Elect Laura Chinchilla

Just for the joy of it, let’s take a hypothetical case. A big Hummer full of undocumented and well-armed Colombian drug runners is doing 100 miles an hour in a rural area. Who has the authority to stop them? If the Transit Police stop them, can they search for drugs? Can they check immigration papers? Whom do they call first for assistance? They have an embarrassment of choices.

So, how do you know what the actual law is, and who is supposed to enforce it and how? Under the present system, I don’t think anyone can give a clear answer to that question. President-Elect Chinchilla has promised to begin the Herculean task of straightening out this gargantuan mess. I wish her luck. LOTS of luck.

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Comments

  1. I have been a lawyer in Colorado for over 30 years. Much of what you have written about the Costa Rican legal system also applies to the US. These days it seems that I spend much of my time trying to get government employees here to do the job they are paid to do. Too often they claim it is “policy” not to cooperate despite law that requires otherwise. Health care administration here is another adventure. Maybe I have just gotten a older and a little cranky but these problems don’t seem to be limited to any one country.

  2. I think you are exaggerating a bit to make your points and I agree with Lorenzo that the system in CR is not all that different from that of the US although many US expats paint with the same broad brush of condemnation that you do. In the US laws are passed and signed into law through a roughly similar process; then specific departments or agencies of the US government interpret those laws and publish regulations and generally allow some type of public comment, and ultimately those regulations are followed by internal administrative policy memos which the public generally does not have access to and those internal policy memos may or may not be all that consistent with the initial legislation. At each step of the way interested parties (mostly “lobbysists”) generally have the opportunity to review, comment or even file legal actions.
    And, regarding law enforcement agencies, yes, CR does have several different law enforcement agencies however the US has even more and law enforcement agencies in the US also have difficulies at times in determining enforcement in situations related to immigrants who may have violated laws.
    I have had some experience in assisting immigrants who want to move to the US; I have experience in CR in obtaining my own residency here. Bottom line is that the system in CR is not all that much different than in the US and my own guess is that the “success rate / length of time required to obtain residency, etc.” is often much shorter here in CR than in the US (in my case it took only 6 months).
    I hope this is helpful to some.

  3. No. Cal. Refugee says:

    Lorenzo, I don’t say the US system is perfect, or even very good. I do think it’s less chaotic and whimsical. That doesn’t make it fair or make it easy to deal with, but you don’t have agencies making up rules that go way beyond the scope of the law itself. In particular, the ‘no two countries in a row’ rule and the ‘out of the country 15 days’ rule are ‘enhancements’ by Mario Zamora, the director general de Migración y Extranjería.

    I live in Costa Rica and like it. The health care nightmare in the USA is one of the reasons I live here. I have been here long enough, however, to see some of the negatives, and some of those negatives affect expats. I have more articles to come about people dealing with the law here, much of it related to real estate. I appreciate the feedback. No. Cal. Refugee

  4. No. Cal. Refugee says:

    Easy, I had very little trouble getting my own residency. If I sound like I am holding the US system of justice up as a shining example of how to do it, that was not my intent, nor does it represent my feelings on the subject.

    Regarding law enforcement agencies, that will be the subject of an upcoming post. President Elect Chinchilla made reform of law enforcement one of her major campaign planks. If she sees problems that need fixing, I don’t feel I am being overly critical in agreeing with her.

    As I said in my reply to Lorenzo, I have some upcoming posts that will deal in detail with some specific cases. I am not a lawyer nor a legal expert by any means, but I will lay out what information I have and present some opinions. I appreciate contrary opinions and comments. Thanks. No. Cal. Refugee

  5. My wife Carol and I are in total agreement with NCR’s assessment of this situation. The “no two countries in a row” and “15 days out of the country” interpretations border on the ridiculous, if not unconstitutional, and, if allowed to stand, will probably be the reason we will seek to live elsewhere. Residency requirements such as direct deposit of our pensions into a Costa Rican bank (at least $1,000) are unacceptable to us because Costa Rica banks seem to fail at an alarming rate. Last week, we read that Coopermex went into receivership. In the year and a half that we’ve lived here as “Perpetual Tourists” — a term akin to “Bastard Stepchild” — we’ve noticed several bank failures. We have followed the rules — three trips to Panama, three to Nicaragua, always within the 90 day requirement and what we have found, is that both Panama and Nicaragua want us to live there a lot more than Costa Rica wants us to live here. Since our arrival in Oct. 08, we’ve added about $50,000 to the Costa Rican economy, our entire retirement budget, less what we’ve spent when we had to leave the country. And we’re simply one retired U.S. couple. There are thousands more on the horizon who will be looking for retirement options outside the U.S. and Costa Rica continues to send the wrong message to these sources of revenue. As to Zamora’s “enhancements”, well, those can be filed where the sun don’t shine, as far as we’re concerned. We’re looking elsewhere.

  6. Mickey says:

    Costa Rica legal system like the U.S.'s? So in Colorado, all that has to happen to transfer real estate is that a lawyer notarizes title of the property over to the seller? With no signature of the seller? Not even a signing over of power of attorney? Well, that happens quite frequently in Costa Rica, and usually when it does, the seller does not know the property was sold and does not receive any compensation for the sale. And worse, has no legal recourse for the sale because the courts side with the buyers.

  7. Here's another example of how I think the CR legal system is basically AFU relative to the U.S. About a year ago I bought a truck from a neighbor. With an attorney we ran it through Registro to make sure it was clean of liens, accidents, tickets, etc. Clean as a whistle. Four months later someone gets a judgement against the previous owner and the court puts a lien on my truck. A clerical error, should be easy to rectify you'd think. Nope. We have to file a special appeal to the judge and wait and wait. The whole process has been already several months with no end in sight. Of course, it was just sheer luck that I even found out about the lien. By then (and now) there is a stop order and if some Transito cop were to actually look up the plate they have the right to seize the truck on the spot.

  8. my father is a computer programmer for Alwill Software and it is a high paying job~;”