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‘Trámite Ya’ and the Promised Land of Easy Procedures in Costa Rica

How a digital platform for migratory procedures violated the law, and what Outlier Legal Services has done to protect the rights of migrants

Trámite Ya, the digital platform of the Costa Rican Immigration Department (DGME)

When Covid-19 first came to Costa Rica, in March 2020, many things changed. For the purposes of Outlier Legal and the services our organization provides to the migrant community, these were substantial changes that definitely affected our “normality.”

Prior to the pandemic, the “normality” of migration procedures meant that members of our staff would do long lines at the headquarters of the Immigration Department (DGME, its acronym in Spanish).

We would frequently spend nights outside of said place just to be able to grab a good spot in line and have enough time to go through the process several times since we could only manage queries for limited affairs at a time.

Keep in mind that the DGME used to close its offices every day at noon and that on the fourth Friday of each month they didn’t even open. This meant that we really needed to seize the little time we had to submit applications and documents for our clients.

This was the old “normal” for migratory procedures in Costa Rica… until the pandemic came around.

The DGME headquarters before the pandemic

This reality radically changed with the pandemic. In March 2020, what at first seemed unthinkable happened: as a preventive measure, the DGME decided to close operations to the public for public health reasons, alleging that it did not have the real means to procure the safety of its collaborators and users.

With the closing of the Immigration Department’s headquarters, Outlier Legal Services and the migrant community became completely unable to continue with any procedure to be carried out before said instances.

This left in limbo not only the procedures that still needed to be presented but also delayed the application of those that had already been filed.

How to go ahead with DGME offices closed?

Given this, there was a fear regarding the validity of the documents obtained abroad, as well as about the legal permanence of all those who aspired to regularize their migratory status in the country.

Because of this, several measures were issued that provisionally extended the validity of the documentation obtained and the permanence of foreigners in the country.

Despite these measures, the DGME did not address the continuity of service to the public, so the concern among the migrant community increased with the passing of days.

Knowing that the Costa Rican Immigration Law empowers the use of technological means to continue with the public service, we sent a formal request to implement the reception of requests through digital platforms.

We did this with the main intention of enforcing the rights of all migrants, who, in the face of this emergency, were seeing their dreams vanish because the DGME didn’t have an alternative to provide its public service if its headquarters were closed.

We also did it because the country has laws and regulations that should have prevented this from happening at all.

Our struggle with the DGME

On July 15, 2020, Outlier Legal received an official response indicating that the request was going to be analyzed by a competent entity.

On September 30, 2020, that entity confirmed to our law firm that the request made had been affirmatively diagnosed and that it would be transferred directly to the DGME, so that it could implement the use of technological means in the migration process.

Even the Minister of Economy, Victoria Hernández Mora, requested the Immigration Department to implement digital tools in migratory processes.

After this, in October 2020, the DGME launched ‘Trámite Ya’, a platform where users could start or continue their migratory processes without having to go to the DGME’s headquarters.

Initially, ‘Trámite Ya’ would allow the documentation to be submitted to the immigration authority through a website 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so it would be a solution to the closure situation that the institution was facing due to the pandemic.

Headquarters of the Costa Rican Immigration Deparment (DGME), in San José

Headquarters of the Costa Rican Immigration Deparment (DGME), in San José

With its implementation, some training was carried out on the use of the platform and doubts were addressed about it — training that was used to clear doubts about things like:

  • The additional cost of the service. It was indicated that it had extra fees because it used a platform developed by Costa Rican Radiographic (Racsa), the institution in charge of developing digital tools for public entities.

  • Requirement of physical documentation of the applicant at any time of the process.

  • The impossibility of submitting files incompletely through the platform, so that the residence application could be rejected if the immigration authority considered that said application was incomplete.

  • Validity of permanence in the country of the applicant.

  • Validity of documents extended through the measures given by the DGME, as well as their use through the digital platform.

  • Time given by the immigration administration when they carried out preventions. (A prevention is an additional request for documents made only once by the DGME.)

Given this, the necessary consultations were carried out to clear doubts.

However, the truth is that these answers were sometimes excessively brief, or else evasive, so the implementation of ‘Trámite Ya’ caused doubts about the validity of the platform.

‘Trámite Ya’ and legality

Despite this, its use began to become popular among the migrant community in Costa Rica. However, as the months went by, the DGME began to reject residency applications under somewhat questionable legal arguments.

One of them mainly corresponded to the non-performance of preventions, or additional requests for documentation, where the immigration authority indicated through a document on the platform’s website that:

“The user is warned that, if in the validation process, the DGME determines that one or more documents provided does not correspond to the requested requirements or does not comply with the necessary formalities to be taken as a valid document by not having an apostille or authentication, not providing the corresponding translations, or lacking any other formality required by the legal system, as well as any other situation of this nature that prevents the Administration from continuing with the substantive valuation, the procedure will be rejected by means of a duly motivated resolution and the applicant must start their migration process again, which they understand and accept, unless the DGME considers that prior to validating the document the person must present the original document on the services platform for review, for which they will be granted an appointment.”

This situation contravenes the law, which is why after several attempts of trying to use the platform and argue with the DGME about the arbitrariness of its decision, Outlier Legal Services sent another request to the competent regulator on August 9, 2021.

Said request was made after finding serious discrepancies between ‘Trámite Ya’ and the Immigration Law. As indicated, the platform was implemented as an alternative to what used to be “normality,” but this alternative was carried out leaving aside an important aspect: legality.

‘Trámite Ya’ ignores that the law states that the DGME must prevent the applicant from providing missing documentation to their process within a period of ten days when necessary, as well as providing an additional period when it is needed.

These are some of the messages that could have been received by applicants for residency who used the ‘Trámite Ya’ platform:

A message from ‘Trámite Ya’ that warns that the applicant only has two more days to answer their prevention.

A message from ‘Trámite Ya’ that warns that the applicant only has 12 more days to answer their prevention.

In both cases, these preventions were made for a number of days less than stipulated in the law, which is why their application would openly violate a fundamental principle of law: the principle of legality.

The principle of legality forces the public administration and its officials to submit to the provisions of the law, allowing them only to limit their actions to what the law permits. This principle has its origin in the Costa Rican Political Constitution and the General Law of Public Administration.

In this sense, it was clear that the immigration authority didn’t submit to the law and, therefore, as a result of the process carried out by Outlier Legal, the competent authority arranged the following:

  • That the information available on the ”Trámite Ya’ platform and its guidelines can change without the need to notify users, which is contrary to the principles of clear and objective rules and legal certainty.

  • That the terms and conditions for the presentation of requests for immigration regularization through ”Trámite Ya’ contravene what is ordered by the General Law of Public Administration.

  • That the objective causes are not established, for which the administration could request the physical original [documents] for its validation, nor is a reference made to the rule that would support this administrative act, with the number and date of publication in the official gazette, complying with was is ordered by the principle of legality that supports the actions of the public administration.

‘Trámite Ya’ did not comply with the law

This way, it was the same public administration that, through a dependency of MEIC, indicated that what was applied with ‘Trámite Ya’ did not comply with what was indicated in the law.

Because of this, the DGME was given a period of eight months to align the regulations applied in the digital platform with the law, in addition to clearly regulating said platform in order to give certainty to users and thus not affect the service.

This process should regularize the way the DGME handles the platform and correct the errors that, as Outlier Legal has already pointed out, have done nothing more than violating the rights of migrants who only seek legal security.

To conclude, we cannot guarantee that the authorities respect the rights of foreigners, but we can guarantee that Outlier Legal will work tirelessly to enforce the rights that correspond to them by law. As an organization, we vow to protect these rights.

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mrodriguez@outlierlegal.com

Mario Rodríguez serves as the Regional Immigration Manager at Outlier Legal. He has a Law degree and is one of our most prepared collaborators in Immigration Law. He has also worked with public entities and as a lawyer in the administrative, commercial, notarial and constitutional fields. Loyal and honest, are some adjectives that fit him perfectly.

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