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Argentina Opens its Doors

By Elizabeth Slater

What right does one have to cross a border? This simple question has plagued empires, states, and nations for centuries. In today’s world, the answer is usually simple: “none.” National security, high unemployment, and the cost of social services all motivate governments to close their borders to immigrants. But according to Argentina, crossing a border is, in fact, a basic human right. At a time when immigration laws around the world are becoming increasingly restrictive, Argentina has opened its doors and become a popular destination for many South American migrants. Countries across the globe should take a look at Argentina. They might find that this bold policy doesn't come with the enormous upheavals that they might imagine.

Before 2003, Argentina's immigration policy aligned with the majority of the world and focused on the deportation of undocumented immigrants and denying illegal aliens basic social benefits such as health care and education. "We come from a law that was really restrictive, where the only role that a government employee had was report to the National Immigration Office the existence of ‘illegal’ immigrants," says Gabriela Liguori of the Refugee Support Commission (CAREF), an immigrant services group in Buenos Aires. In December 2003, due to the work of Argentine advocacy groups citing human rights violations and pressure from the other members of Mercosur, South America's trading bloc, the government reversed its policies. "Now," says Liguouri, "the law asks government employees to advise immigrants of ways to become documented in Argentina."

Argentina's current law treats immigration as a human right and consequently prioritizes the reunification of families, facilitates the ability of immigrants to obtain residency, and allows free access to health care and education. Immigrants are also granted a right to legal counsel. All residents of neighboring countries are eligible for residency, regardless of whether or not they have a job.

"The law is a facilitator so that people can live in better conditions. The state no longer acts like a police state in front of the immigrant, it doesn't persecute someone for the sole reason of being an immigrant," explains Liguori. The country’s most recent census counts over a million immigrants in Argentina from Paraguay, Peru, and Bolivia. Since 2006, over 800,000 people have applied to become legal residents in Argentina.

Surprisingly, in spite of occasional demonstrations of resentment by some of the nation's politicians (Mauricio Macri, Buenos Aires's mayor and one of President Kirchner's main opponents, has been quoted blaming crime and the growth of shantytowns on uncapped immigration), Argentina's open borders have not become a centerpiece of political debate. Argentina’s growing economy provides jobs for Argentines and immigrants alike. Still, a contraction could unleash a wave of resentment towards the immigrant community, as seen in Europe and the United States.

Argentine NGOs and government organizations are looking for evidence that the new law is working, often citing the positive implications of undocumented immigrants moving out of the underground economy. Many international immigrant rights groups claim liberal immigration policies allow for improved living standards for both immigrants and natives because immigrants occupy economic niches where natives are unwilling to work. Further, if they are able to work legally and more easily pay taxes, immigrants can positively contribute to the economy. In Argentina, many of the supermarket owners and produce distributors are immigrants, and their businesses are used so frequently by Argentines that their value can hardly be questioned.

But many immigrants, even after obtaining legal residency, choose to remain in the informal, undocumented sector, suggesting that Argentina’s model falls short in some areas. Gladys Baer, a sociologist working for Argentina's Labor Ministry says, "Despite the creation and expansion of registered employment for immigrants, there continues to be high levels of precarious employment in areas like domestic service, construction and the textile, tailoring, and shoe industries.” The large presence of immigrants in these industries working off the books in dismal conditions exposes a conundrum facing Argentine policymakers: If there is an open-door immigration policy in place, why haven't more people availed themselves of their rights?

"For the majority of people from my country it's not convenient to work 'on the books,' even if they're documented. They come to Argentina to work and to earn money. They earn more by starting work at seven in the morning and finishing at ten at night," says Irene, a Bolivian owner of a small clothing factory, who chose not reveal her last name.

But despite the new immigration law, among employers and public institutions, old habits persist. Many public facilities still demand to see documentation proving one's legal status, preventing undocumented immigrants from accessing social services. Judges who disagree with the law deliberately misinterpret its meaning, blurring the statutes to lawyers, citizens, and immigrants. And while the National Immigration Department ultimately decides who is to be deported or not, some judges take the law into their own hands, either preemptively deciding to deport criminals or refusing to sign off on deportation charges. These problems, along with the high number of still undocumented immigrants, question not only the ability of Argentina to enforce its laws, but also the extent to which its immigration policies are truly effective.

There are also incoherencies between the immigration law and laws pertaining to the government welfare system. In order to access welfare benefits, such as direct child subsidies, immigrants are required to have three years of legal residency. They also need 20 years of legal residency in order to claim disability allowances. These are serious issues for poorer immigrants who live in conditions of poverty or who have children with disabilities. Opponents of the law claim that this is what happens when you guarantee government services to anyone who is willing to cross the border, while its defenders argue that such problems are to be expected when a country introduces legislation breaking so much ground. "These are things that were not thought of before the law was written," says Liguori.

So, would Argentina’s immigration model work elsewhere? On this question, the jury is still out. In the United States, immigration is a politically polarizing topic, and the scale is very different. There are an estimated 11 million undocumented residents in the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security, over ten times the number of immigrants in Argentina. Furthermore, the focus of the United States on national security makes it highly unlikely that such a law would ever come into being.

But consider this: Argentina's economy is booming and while it is not a rich country, it is significantly richer than some of its neighbors. The average Argentine earns a little more that three times what a Bolivian earns—very close to the same advantage the average U.S. citizen has to its Mexican counterpart. As a result, one could have expected catastrophe—an uncontrollable flow of poorer immigrants streaming into the country coupled with angry public backlash. That hasn't happened. Meanwhile, many policymakers elsewhere promise to build electric fences, hire more guards, and deport increasing numbers of migrants. As policy-makers around the globe contemplate the costs of a more open door immigration policy, they would do well to look at Argentina's unlikely story.

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Elizabeth Slater is a Fulbright Scholar living in Buenos Aires, studying the effects of Argentina's open-door immigration policy.

[Photo by Dirk McCormick]

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