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Upala, Costa Rica eases the path for Nicaraguan immigrants

The local government of this canton has placed its bets on education and on legalizing the status of its immigrant population

Upala is a rural canton [a political division similar to a county] in northern Costa Rica, on the border with Nicaragua. It’s part of the Alajuela province and was founded by Nicaraguan immigrants at the end of the 19th century. Today, it has nearly 45,000 citizens of mixed nationality, and the area continues receiving large numbers of new Nicaraguan immigrants.

Immigration has in large measure defined Upala’s demography and is viewed positively by area residents. “Daily life in the cross-border communities isn’t defined by a border line on a map; on the contrary, both nationalities live together and share their production, food habits, sporting events and trade. These necessities have united them since their communities were founded,” states Alejandro Ubau, coordinator of the Unidad de Gestion Socioeducativa [United Socio-educational Management] or UGSE, an organization in Upala.

Ubau’s parents are Nicaraguan, and his family was one of the canton’s founders. He served as mayor of Upala between 2011 and 2016, and now directs projects through the UGSE for the inclusion and education of the immigrant population. “The immigrant who arrives in any social condition must integrate into the community and understand their rights. We in the government institutions are here to respond positively to those rights.”

Working from a human rights perspective, the local government developed a policy to address the topic of immigration and offer some answers to this population, which has often been excluded and socially marginalized. The government has coordinated with various institutions and organizations to craft this response.

For example, the UGSE established a joint effort with Costa Rica’s Agency for Immigration and Foreign Affairs, with technical help from Unicef and the Center for Immigrant Social Rights. Their goal was to support immigrant women in their process of legalization; the project, which just finalized, involved nearly 200 women participants.

Further, in order to support the immigrant population’s inclusion, they’ve facilitated educational projects in the canton, such as a “Traveling Careers” program that the National University offers. “University faculty come to offer classes in the Municipal Library, so that the students don’t have to travel beyond Upala,” Ubau explains.

Legalizing the migrants’ status

“I entered Costa Rica illegally, and I’m here without papers,” comments Angelica Carmona. She came to Upala from Rivas, Nicaragua, 16 years ago. Here, she formed a family with another Nicaraguan, and they now have a two-year-old daughter.

Carmona was one of 192 women who formed part of the project for immigration legalization. She’s currently awaiting response to her application.

“All the women [in the project] are Nicaraguans, most of them with Costa Rican children. They’ve lived in Upala the majority of the time, but for economic reasons or lack of information they never filed their immigration paperwork,” states Johanna Murillo, the UGSE representative in the municipality.

Angelica Carmona, 32, is a Nicaraguan immigrant. Photo: Katherine Estrada Tellez

The project involved accompanying and advising the immigrant women in their application process and covering the paperwork costs. “We held a meeting in the library with the women, with food for them and their children, since the majority came from very far away. We took their fingerprints, helped them fill out the applications and arranged the bank transfers for them,” Ubau explains.

The team also offered the women all the information and training needed to understand the process, to know what they had to do, and to be aware of the expiration dates on their residence cards.

“It’s been a great help to me, because right now, in the situation we’re in, it’s very hard to think about papers. I want to take advantage of this opportunity to have better job options,” Angelica Carmona comments. She’s only held informal jobs in the zone, which don’t give her a steady income.

Although the project was only for women, some of the Upala library’s staff members received training from the Costa Rican Immigration Agency and can now assist anyone in the population with their immigration paperwork.

Eliseo Mairena is a Nicaraguan originally from the municipality of Nueva Guinea in the South Caribbean Autonomous Region. He emigrated to Upala over 20 years ago, then married a Costa Rican from the zone. They have a four-year-old son.

He’s been trying to get his Costa Rican identity card for more than two years, but the process was left in the air when the Costa Rican Immigration Office suspended their labors for nearly eight months, due to the COVID-19 public health crisis. In addition, Mairena found it hard to comply with certain requirements. He decided to visit the library to get help.

“They helped me fill out the application correctly, they explained to me the bank deposits I had to make, and how many copies of my passport I needed to get,” he tells us. He’s excited over the possibility of obtaining this document, which would make him feel more secure in the country and give him access to better job opportunities. “I’ve been living here for 22 years, and this will give me better employment options,” he noted.

Eliseo Mairena, in Upala’s Municipal Library, getting help with the application to legalize his immigration status. Photo: Katherine Estrada Tellez

“It’s exciting to say that I’m going to be able to get my ID card, because I never thought I could achieve that. Things I needed for my daughter always came up first, but this this will change everything. I’ll have the opportunity to think about a better future for my child,” Angelica Carmona shares.

Traveling careers

Another way of promoting the integration of the immigrant population is through educational projects like the “Traveling Careers” program that Costa Rica’s National University (UNA) offers in Upala. “The UGSE promoted an agreement that combines the university’s stated mission with the human rights orientation that prevails in the territory. Now the University comes here to offer classes,” Ubau tells us.

The UNA describes the “Traveling Careers” program as a response to the need for specific academic preparation in the outer regions, among populations that have historically remained excluded, vulnerable and socially disadvantaged. These conditions have impacted their human rights.

This project, which begun in 2018, has benefitted more than 400 students from the rural areas. Two hundred ninety of them are in the areas of Upala, Guatuso and los Chiles, enrolled in Rural Education, Sustainable Tourism Management and Computer Engineering.

Tania Rodriguez is a Nicaraguan studying Computer Engineering through this project. She’s 31 and has enrolled in higher education for the first time. “For reasons of moving around and the economic situation, I hadn’t been able to study in the university,” she confesses. She now has a special scholarship, whereby the university pays for her son’s childcare so she can attend the classes.

Tania Rodriguez tests the computer equipment she obtained via the UGSE in Upala. Photo: Katherine Estrada Tellez.

The UNA professors teach their classes in the municipal library once a month in a coordinated effort. The population’s interest in studying is clear: “This year, we had more than 200 requests for admission from students in Upala, but we were only able to benefit 75 of them,” Ubau informs us.

He added that they offer wrap-around services, so that there’s nothing to hold back the participants, who are guaranteed food, transportation, and computers.

“Having the option for this career gives me hope and confidence that things will get better for me,” comments Tania Rodriguez.

Upala was the first territory where the “Traveling Careers” project was implemented, but the UNA currently has established a presence in the Brunca, Huetar Atlantic and Central Pacific Regions of Costa Rica.

“We want the youth to have opportunities to study, so we’re arranging spaces where they can prepare to apply for higher education,” explains Ubau, referring to the free tutoring sessions they offer in the library, so that students can finish high school and have the tools to take the university admissions exams.

Sobeyda Lopez comes from one of the communities outside the town of Upala to receive tutoring in math. The youngest of her three children comes with her. Lopez is a Nicaraguan who came to Upala when she was seven. Now she’s 34. “Getting my high school diploma has been hard for me, but I’m taking advantage of this opportunity and I hope to finish this course, and then be able to get a university diploma. I’m fighting for that, and I know I’m going to succeed at it,” she affirms.

Sobeyda Lopez with her youngest child. Photo: Katherine Estrada Tellez

On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, tutorial classes are offered in Spanish, Social Studies and Math, with around 20 students in each class. There are also preparatory classes for the admissions exam required by the Costa Rican state universities.

The focus of the local Upala government is on human rights and community development. It hopes these projects that contribute to the formation and insertion of the immigrant community can be replicated in other places.

“Having something to fall back on here, the possibility of being part of this country and the opportunity to find a better job and guarantee a better future for my little girl makes me very happy. God willing, I’ll be allowed to get my Costa Rican ID,” Angelica Carmona concludes.

Sobeyda Lopez describes this same feeling of opportunity. She trusts that the tutorial sessions will help her finally pass the class that has kept her from getting her high school diploma, and later apply for one of the traveling careers. “I know that next year I’ll be coming to the library to study my university career. I know that this opportunity and my own efforts will yield results.”


This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times

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