The next time you hear that term, picture me. Let me tell you about some of my struggles to gain residency in Costa Rica, a story that reflects the experience of many Central Americans trying to establish their status in the United States.
I arrived to Costa Rica legally with a 3-month tourist visa. As I watched the nightmare experience of my colleagues to gain residency, I decided to follow the advice and example of other foreigners who renewed their tourist visa every 3 months by leaving the country. This was convenient because my job involved a great deal of travel.
After a year of home assignment, I returned to Costa Rica, and discovered that the situation had changed. Under a new immigration director, those with extended tourist visas were being jailed and expelled from the country.So I decided to start the process for residency. The only problem was that, with the new laws, everyone was confused, including the Immigration officials and the lawyer I hired. A year later, my visa request was denied, and I was officially an "illegal alien." As I debated what to do, the visa crisis was solved by a family crisis that called me home.
Act 3: 2004
I was ready to return to Costa Rica and began the process of re-acquiring the necessary documents:
- A notarized letter from International Ministries, guaranteeing my salary.
- Passport copies
- Police report, certifying that I did not have a police record.
- Birth certificate
- A letter from the Baptist Federation, inviting me to work here.
Each document required a letter from the Secretary of State authenticating the signature, a letter from the Costa Rica consulate verifying the authenticity of the authentication, a letter from the Costa Rica government authenticating the letter from the consulate, and an official translation of all the documents.
Each step of this process, of course, cost significant time and money, and the letters were only valid for a limited time (which is why I had to start from scratch).
This time, since I "knew what I was doing" and had the list of required documents in writing, I decided not to repeat my experience with the lawyer. I confidently went to immigration by myself. A year later, I was again denied a visa, with 3 days for an appeal.
Act 4: 2005
I hired another lawyer. He wrote a very impressive sounding legal appeal, which we personally handed in to immigration. A few months later, we were informed that we had turned it in to the wrong desk, and would have to return to resubmit it. We did so. Silence.
Act 5: January 2006
The law changed again. I decided to find out what was happening. To make an appointment with immigration, you have to show up early, long before they open at 8:00, and stand in line for 2-5 hours to get an appointment.My appointment was set for 10:30am a month later. I duly arrived on the appointed day and waited until they closed at 5:00 without ever being called. Repeat above process. This time I found out that I had the wrong file number. Repeat above process. File found, no action. For the 4th and 5th visits, I was out of the country, so my lawyer went alone. They told him that no visas were being processed at this time.
Act 6: August 2006
A member of one of our churches works at Immigration and offered to check on my status. After 3 tries (see Act 4), he was able to deliver me a document definitively and permanently rejecting my request for residency. He explained that only if I am married to a Costa Rican (he offered) or give birth to one (not possible) will I be eligible for residency. Otherwise I should leave the country.
Act 7: September 2006
The one other option he offered was for the Baptist Federation to attain the legal status of "importer of persons" and solicit a visa for me. That is our next step. Meanwhile, I continue to be an "illegal alien", supported only by my valid tourist visa, but liable at any moment to have that challenged.
Have I acted throughout in good faith? Yes? Am I contributing to the country in positive ways? Yes. Have I tried sincerely to legalize my status? Yes. Have I been confused and frustrated by unclear and changing laws that overnight transferred my status from legal to illegal? Yes. Are all these experiences that immigrants in the US face regularly? Yes.
I recently attended a popular one-actor play, EL NICA, the story of a Nicaraguan immigrant in Costa Rica. In heartbreaking, hilarious ways, he presented the rejection, the struggle, the desperation of the immigrant, as he speaks to the hostile Costa Ricans:
"You ask me why I'm here? It's hunger that drives me."
"It's only an accident of birth that you belong here and I don't. We sleep under the same stars."
"Some of your greatest national heroes have Nicaraguan roots."
"God has sent us hurricanes, floods, war, corruption, drought, earthquakes. . . how much more can we take?"
"All I want is to work. Is that such a crime?"
He ends by saying:
"The history of the world
is the history of immigrants
Therefore, this history
could also be yours."
A recent display at the National Museum in San José, Migration and Urban Development, is introduced with these words:
"People come and go. History is built on comings and goings, and the universal cultural is sustained by that mobilization of bodies and souls to where the sun best warms them, where they can eat a bite more, where they can best see their children grow. The history of the human diaspora is the history of humanity. Therefore, to see the immigrant as "other" is to be blind to our past and to our essence as individuals."
In the name of Jesus, who spent his childhood as a refugee in Egypt,