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Argentina restricts immigration from poor South American countries

Mauricio Macri at a cultural ceremony in Las Heras last month. (Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación/Flickr).

Argentina has toughened its stance on immigration, deterring migrants from some of the poorest countries in South America.

“Faced with the recent notorious acts of organized crime, the government has had enormous difficulties in enacting deportation orders against foreign nationals as a result of the complex, repetitive procedures that in some cases can take seven years to process,” said President Mauricio Macri of policy changes implemented by emergency presidential decree on Jan. 27.

The measure allows Argentina to expedite the deportation of foreign residents with criminal records, as well as restrict those serving sentences or with criminal records from entering the country. It also specifically targets suspects of drug and human trafficking, money laundering, and organ and arms trade.

The decree argued that immigrants make up to 21.35 percent of the prison population in federal penitentiaries (when considering all of the country’s prisons, the figure is closer to 6 percent) and that 33 percent of those convicted of drug trafficking are foreigners.

The vast majority of Argentina’s immigrants, which make up 4.5 percent of the population, come from Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru – some of the poorest countries in South America. Most of these migrants are poor, uneducated and in search of employment, according to a 2012 report from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which revealed that the majority of Paraguayan migrants work in construction and domestics industries, while Bolivians predominantly take on agricultural work such as on olive farms and vineyards.

Migrants have been seeking such work in Argentina for decades, and have consistently faced discrimination and blame for the country’s social, economic, sanitary and security problems. Human rights advocates say the Argentine government’s recent crackdown on immigration risks further stigmatizing these foreigners and is a violation of human rights under international law.

“Amnesty International considers that it’s a mistake to reduce the migration phenomenon to a debate on national security that associates migrants with criminals,” the rights organization said in a statement last Monday. “Even when States have the authority to establish rules in migratory issues, they can’t violate the rights guaranteed under the constitution and international human rights treaties.”

Macri’s administration argued that the changes would not affect the government’s immigration policy but only cut through bureaucratic red tape that had been impeding law enforcement from doing its job.

“We cannot continue to allow criminals to keep choosing Argentina as a place to commit offenses,” Macri, the son of an immigrant, said during a recent news conference, the New York Times reported.

The conservative leader’s new policy is in stark contrast to Argentina’s traditionally welcoming approach to immigration. Critics quickly drew comparisons with U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to temporarily ban travelers from seven Muslim-majority nations and cut off the flow of refugees. Macri has also proposed a special police force to control the border, and a right-wing congressman is calling for a wall to be built on the border with Bolivia, according to the New York Times.

Government officials have been quick to deny any association with Trump’s immigration policies.

“Since December 2015 we’ve been thinking about the immigration policy of Argentina,” National Immigration Director Horacio José Garcia told the Buenos Aires Herald. “Our immigration policy is our own and isn’t similar to other countries.”

Members of the opposition have also accused the government of using misleading statistics to blame foreigners for drug trafficking crimes in the country.

“Macri is intent on copying Trump’s agenda,” human rights lawyer Myriam Bregman of the Socialist Workers’ party told the Guardian. “They’re trying to associate immigration with crime. … While they persecute poor people in the slums because of the color of their face or their nationality, major crime involving drug trafficking continues to be run by government officials and corrupt police.”

Macri has also faced accusations that his new restrictions target poor immigrants to distract attention from Argentina’s sluggish economy. In September, Argentina’s government released poverty figures for the first time in three years, revealing that nearly one-third of the population is living below the poverty line.

Still, the shift in immigration policy has been backed by strong public support. A poll published in late January by the consultancy Poliarquía showed that 69 percent of respondents “very much approved” of barring foreigners with criminal records from entering Argentina, and 88 percent of respondents said foreigners who commit offenses should be thrown out. Only a quarter of the respondents saw the order as a political maneuver.

One senator who supports the decree, Miguel Ángel Pichetto of the central-left Front for Victory party, said Argentina is right to deny migrants who use the country for drug dealing schemes.

“How much misery can Argentina stand by receiving poor immigrants?” said Pichetto in a television broadcast. “We must stop being silly. The world is changing. It is a world that is closing up.”


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at