Dancing the Immigration Tango in Uruguay

A fair amount of people who have undertaken the residency process in Uruguay comment to me that they feel they are receiving the run-around. This is standard fare. It wasn't so just a few short years ago, but the process started to change after we began.

At the time (2008), most people I asked had received their permanent residency within 6 months of application. Ours took 18 months, mainly because of a typographical error in the spelling of my wife's name (on her fingerprint card). It mattered not that the fingerprints came from her, all the other documents matched, and had no criminal record attached to them. The "E" was supposed to be an "I", and "to hell with your application, gringo, you need to start over."

Now in 2011, a friend of mine (after waiting more than 6 months) has just been asked by Migraciones (Immigration) to gather new, up-to-date papers from the USA; they have taken so long to process his application that the old documents he handed in have "expired."

This is not the only instance. Another friend of mine, who came from another Mercosur country, is still waiting 18+ months for his residency to be approved.

One might see the delays at Migraciones as a way of Uruguay attempting to control those who might become citizens, as the only way to remove the easy naturalization process would be to change the constitution. Shut them out at the door, but once they are in, they are in and there is nothing you can do about it.

This may sound baseless and accusatory, but it has basis in fact. Migraciones does have a directive to maintain a racial and cultural status quo, discrimination being commonplace in their filtering of who gets in and who does not. For example, according to one of my contacts, a former Presidential aide, Migraciones has a history of rejecting the applications of Asians.

If you engage in some simple statistical analysis, there is no reason for this. Uruguay is no means inundated by a flood of socioeconomic refugees and Migraciones is not understaffed by any either. The naked truth is simple government waste.

The statistics for Migraciones' residency applications are available, in detail, on their website at http://www.dnm.minterior.gub.uy/estadisticas.php for years 1999 through 2009. Though they have not yet detailed the past 2 years' residency numbers, at present load it works out to 11 applications per day (78 per work week). [Editor's Note: In the final review prior to the publishing of this article, it seems the statistics were updated to include 2010 and the first half of '11]

That's for people who manage to get in to make an appointment, to make an appointment (no, this is not a typo, it is a purposeful repeat -- the first appointment is made to come in and see when they might have an opening... for your next appointment), to be seen by someone who takes your applications if all the i's are dotted and t's are crossed, and the planets are in proper alignment. Unfortunately, the waiting time for said appointment can be several months.

In our case, we had to make an appointment to make an appointment twice, because the first time we went to submit our paperwork, our stack of copies was made before one document had its notarial sticker on it. Said copy, despite being a perfect copy of the text of the document, wasn't a copy with the numbered sticker. Appointment over, next! The most frustrating part was the copy machine right behind the bureaucrat, which we weren't allowed to use. We could only make an appointment (to make an appointment) and come back in maybe 3 or 4 months with all the paperwork in order.

So, what causes the slowdown? Let's see...

Migraciones processed a grand total of 4,091 residency applications in 2009. This is an increase of only 2.76% over the previous year, of 3,981 applications in 2008. 2008 showed a marked increase (196.2%) from 2007s 1,344 applications, but going back in time, they were running a fairly steady number averaging 1,332 per year between 1995 and 2007, with 1999 being an anomalous 2,125 total applications. The average for all years from 1995 to 2009 is 1,693 per year.

That averages out to 32 applications to process per week, or 6.5 per work day.

Generally speaking, the majority of residency applications come from other Mercosur countries, Argentina taking first place followed by Brazil. Of the total, the USA represents only a small fraction even in the most heavy years, with the most per annum processed in 2009 for a total of 288 individuals. The applications from Europe average double the US numbers from 2003 to present, but are far more numerous in the years 1995 to 2002, some by a factor of 6. US migrants didn't seem to catch the Uruguay bug until 2003; most years pre-2003 are under 50 US applications, and some fewer than 20.

What is interesting is a spike in applications in 1999, not just from the US but from everywhere. Mercosur applications doubled, US applications tripled, EU increased about 61%, and the "rest of the world" applicants more than doubled as well. After that year things resumed their normal pace. I have asked locals and foreigners, presidential aides and bureaucrats, in order to find out just what created this spike in applicants, but nobody seems to know.

I had suspected it might have to do with the Ley De Caducidad, which renders former war criminals immune to investigation and trial, but it went into effect in 1986. A failed attempt was made to repeal it in 1989. Similar attempts have come and gone; repealing it would likely land most of the governing body of Uruguay in jail.

That's because the Frente Amplio party, which holds the majority power in Parliament, is substantially made up of former Tupamaro guerillas and other individuals with a questionable past. The group was actually made illegal during the dictatorship from 1973 to 1984. Other seats of power belong to the opposite right-wing, who allegedly conducted heinous acts during the dictatorship.

Needless to say, they continue to pass the hot potato.

So what was going on in 1999?

This was before the meltdown in Argentina. Perhaps folks saw Bush coming (or, heaven forbid, the prospect of Al Gore for President), and wanted to get out while the getting was good. The Euro was established, Hugo Chavez was elected, the first episodes of Family Guy and SpongeBob SquarePants started airing, and Napster debuted. Clinton was acquitted of his impeachment charges, which had a big effect on peoples' faith in the system, pretty much making American Presidents out as infallible Gods for the foreseeable future. The Columbine massacre happened in April. War tore through Kosovo. Columbia announced that it would include illegal drug exports in its GNP statements. The US turned over complete control of the Panama Canal. And, interestingly, The Matrix hit theaters, though that's probably just a coincidence.

In my search for more answers I contacted Migraciones not only on my own, but through a local accomplice. My questions were (and I consider them quite bland and inoffensive) thus:

  • How many people work for Migraciones in total?
  • How many people work for Migraciones in the Oficina Central?
  • How many of those people specifically are tasked with processing applications for residencia legal?
  • Are applications for residencia legal sent to the oficina central for processing, or are they processed in their departmental offices where the application is made?
  • Do you have any statistics on naturalization of foreigners who have been long-term legal residents?

According to Migraciones secretary Carlos Sacias, this information is "private" and we are not entitled to it without supervisor approval. So we attempted to contact the supervisor directly but despite numerous weeks of harassment they neither picked up their phone nor called us back. We bounced around others who refused to identify themselves by name, and in the end, we came up empty-handed. Migraciones is an impenetrable fortress which contains an information black hole.

The last question was of particular importance to me. I am due, depending on when you start counting, to qualify for citizenship by naturalization any day now, and I wanted to find out how many other people like me there were. The requirements are still a bit cloudy and, like all things legal in Uruguay, if you ask 5 different lawyers or bureaucrats the same question, you receive 5 different answers.

What is clear, however, is that two forms of documentation are needed, in addition to 3 years of residency for married couples or 5 years of residency for singles, to attain citizenship by naturalization.

One document is the "Jura Bandera", which is a certificate attained by attending a ceremony done in schools on Flag Day (June 19th, more or less, depending on weekends and inclement weather). One must reserve ones' spot in the ceremony by June 16th, by coordinating with the school.

The ceremony consists of going to a school on Flag Day, where you sign up to pledge your allegiance to the flag. The first-grade classes usually do this all together, and the last year's alumni are normally invited to join in. They sing the national anthem and other Uruguayan songs, and give a presentation on the history of the national flags and seal. Then they all stand in front of the flag, an officiant asks them, loosely translated, "Do you swear loyalty to the flag of Uruguay?", they reply, "Si, juro." and it's done. You collect your certificate later from the school administration.

Most people do the Jura Bandera once. The military recruits must do it a second time.

Knowledge or singing of the national anthem is not required, nor is fluency in Spanish. You merely need to know the words, "Si, juro," which translates to, "I swear." The only weird part is that you need to arrange with the school in advance to be put on the list, and to do that, some of them say you need the first document - the Carta Ciudadana, or Citizenship Letter - first.

This document, according to my local accomplice, is, "a paper that 'proves' that you have, let's say, a reason to be here, a work reason if you work here, or a reason to live here, even if you are retired."

This document is issued by the Corte Electoral, normally located in Montevideo's Ciudad Vieja [oldest part of Montevideo], but presently at Avenida Agraciada 2302 due to building repairs. It is open Monday to Friday from 10am to 3pm; the phone number is 2-929-0320.

The funny thing is that I managed to get my Jura Bandera certificate without the Carta Ciudadana. The other funny thing is that nobody, not even the lawyers or bureaucrats, said a thing (or, I suspect, even knew) about the Carta Ciudadana or the Jura Bandera when repeatedly questioned about naturalization requirements. I had made it a specific point to grill my legal counsel about the inevitable paperwork that would come in 3 years' time once I had gained legal residency, as I know full well that Uruguayan bureaucracy will press you for something that you should have begun and/or started keeping meticulous records of, 3 years ago, when the time comes to submit paperwork.

It took the luck of finding someone who had actually done it to learn the secret. Remember the 5 different people with 5 different answers. Bienvenidos a Uruguay.

For more information on the Jura Bandera, you can contact Miguel, who was very helpful, at the Ministerio de educacion y cultura, phone 2-915-0563 or 2-915-3857. Or, alternatively, Cabo (Corporal) Perdomo, also very helpful, in the Secretaria office of Liceo Militar General Artigas, phone 2-305-9055 or 2-305-2842.

I have not yet gotten said Carta Ciudadana yet, so I will have to write a more detailed report once I have it in hand. And, with luck on my side, I will soon be naturalized and have a second passport.

End Note:

According to the constitution of Uruguay, these are the citizenship requirements:


Article 73. - The citizens of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay are either Natural or Legal.

Article 74. - Natural Citizens are all men and women born anywhere in the territory of the Republic. Natural citizens are also the children of an Uruguayan parent, whatever their place of birth, if they take residence in the country and enroll in the Civil Register.

Article 75. - People who are entitled to Legal citizenship:

  1. The foreign men and women of good character, with family incorporated in the Republic, who possess some capital or property in the country, or engaged in some profession, art or industry, and have three years of residence in the Republic.
  2. The foreign men and women of good conduct, without a family established in the Republic, which have some of the qualities of the previous paragraph and five years of residence in the country.
  3. The foreign men and women who obtain special grace of the General Assembly for outstanding service or outstanding merit. Proof of residency must be based indispensably on a public or private proven date.

The rights attached to legal citizenship may not be exercised by foreigners in subparagraphs 1) and 2) until three years after the granting of the respective letter (ed: meaning legal residency granted).

The existence of any of the grounds for suspension referred to in Article 80, shall prevent the granting of citizenship card (ed: prisoners, criminals, and the mentally infirm).

Article 76. - Every citizen can be called to public service. The legal citizens may not be appointed until three years after being granted citizenship card.

Citizenship is not required to perform duties as a teacher in higher education.

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