Argentina’s Embedded Migrants – Analysis


By Andrew Eller

News coverage of Latin American immigration patterns normally focuses on the movement of migrants from Latin America to the United States. This interpretation overlooks the fact that there are major immigrant communities in many Latin American cities, which continue to receive heavy flows of new settlers.  One such city is Buenos Aires. With a number of distinctive immigrant communities, Buenos Aires is home to groups of recent arrivals as well as communities that have been co-existing and integrating for centuries. These groups often maintain a distinct identity within the city, and regularly are the brunt of racially charged expressions and acts of vandalism. Understanding the dynamics of the immigrant communities in Buenos Aires is significant for the greater appreciation of their personal situation, but it is also a step towards comprehending the shifting mosaic of the growing number of hemisphere residents who are living and working in nations other than their countries of origin.

Argentina has a long history of receiving immigrants from Europe, which makes currently arriving non-European immigrants somewhat unique. Once they have arrived, Immigrants are affected by their legal status as well as factors like race, sex, and class. As the Buenos Aires immigrant pool continues to grow, it is vital to take a look at the conditions under which they are now living and the new opportunities to which they are being given access. Many Argentines are today speaking out, saying that the Argentine government must enforce laws and create systems to ensure livable conditions and protection from discrimination for immigrants.

A Long History of (European) Immigration

The presence of immigrants in Buenos Aires is not a new phenomenon. The first European immigrants to enter into what is today known as Argentina were the Spanish. This process of colonization led to the creation of a mestizo culture and the formation of an identity that eventually was neither European nor indigenous. Identity in Argentina, as in the rest of Latin America is a unique mix of various cultures, created in the context of a hierarchical and rigid social structure defined by racial classifications.

The construction of a national identity based on racial terms was continued with the infamous “Generation of ’37,” which followed the independence of Argentina. This movement of thinkers, writers, and politicians was fundamental in the creation of Argentina as an independent nation.

The definition of national borders, a crucial part of the construction of a national identity, occurred with events like the Conquest of the Desert in the 1870s under President Julio Roca. Roca used the high flown rhetoric of conquest to justify the extermination of indigenous peoples and the incorporation of the land known as the pampa into a productive system. Los Pampas, which traditionally had been occupied by various indigenous peoples, were later cultivated by European immigrants. Roca saw this as a way to bring the ‘civilization’ of Europe to Argentina. He was not alone in his racially-based understanding of ‘civilization building,’ merely one of the worst. In fact, the Constitution of 1853 specifically expressed a preference for European immigration, saying that “The Federal Government will encourage European immigration” (Article 25). The use of immigration as a tool to ‘civilize’ or ‘whiten’ Argentina continued throughout the 19th Century via such iconic leaders as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and Bartalomé Mitre.

The economic prosperity at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th was accompanied by a wave of urban immigration from Europe. This process of increasingly urban immigration, along with a previous wave of immigration during the 19th century, brought with it a lasting legacy that is still clearly visible in Argentina. For example, Italian immigrants have had a large impact on Argentine culture, bringing the tango, the Italian language, hand gestures, and, what has now become, the food of the porteños (people from Buenos Aires). Enclaves of traditional Jewish, German, and Welsh immigrants are also among the communities that still exist in Argentina. These communities maintain elements of their traditional dress and other cultural elements like dialects, favoring specific economic sectors and political parties.

Missing a Heritage of Acceptance

These early waves of immigration from Europe did not produce a heritage of acceptance as much as a coordinated effort to create a country with a European soul. These historical practices are considered part of the explanation for Argentina having one of the whitest populations in Latin America. Additionally, during the late 19th century, as a result of The War of the Triple Alliance, many indigenous groups and people of African ancestry were killed in what turned out to be an extremely bloody and destructive war. Another contributing factor to Argentina’s predominantly white population was the lack of large indigenous civilizations like the Aztec or Incan empires at the time of the Spanish conquest.

Racist ideologies and laws which restrict certain groups of immigrants are not unique to Argentina. Comparisons can be made with the United States: in both Argentina and the U.S., early laws and attitudes marginalized indigenous groups and discouraged widespread intermarriage. This was different from the practice in other Latin American countries, where huge sectors of the population were of mixed origin. U.S. immigration laws, like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, specifically targeted Chinese immigrants and were emblematic of U.S. racial attitudes at the time. Immigrants to the U.S. until the mid 20th century were primarily from Europe, with the most favored groups being the English during the colonial period, followed by northern Europeans, then by Southern and Eastern Europeans. Since these historical patterns are not exclusive to Argentina an investigation of more recent immigrant conditions in Buenos Aires bears weight when it comes to any understanding of the conditions of immigrants hemisphere-wide.

Recent Trends: Legal and Illegal Immigration, Movement to Capitals, Feminization of Immigration

The National Institute of Statistics and the Census of Argentina reported that residents born in Paraguay and Bolivia are currently the country’s largest group of immigrants, at 325,046 and 233,464 persons respectively, followed by those from Italy, Chile, Spain, Uruguay, and Peru.

Much of the recent immigration to Argentina is essentially economic in nature. Immigrants, who have entered the country illegally, lack documentation of any kind and, therefore, are limited in their options. Immigrants also often will go another route, obtain tourist visas and then purposely overstay their visits to find long term employment. These informal workers are without resources and have to face harsh conditions without many safeguards in terms of workers’ rights or safety nets. Government indifference to these basic guarantees causes a lack of legal recourse, which leaves them powerless in the face of draconian labor law violations that so painfully affect them.

Another recent trend in the immigration process has been the movement of migrants from rural areas where they work in agricultural pursuits to urban areas, especially Buenos Aires. This pattern represents a change in the type of work that is being demanded of them. For example, the growing demand for work in garment factories means that Bolivian migrants to Argentina, who formerly could have worked as agricultural workers in the provinces of Jujuy, Salta, La Rioja, and Mendoza, now increasingly work in factories.

The increasing number of female immigrants is another important trend. In recent years, female migrants have comprised more than half of the increasing tide of migration. Women often enter the work force in gender-selective positions. They are more likely to be employed in garment manufacturing and domestic work. The issues around immigrants’ conditions go beyond issues of race and economic class, as the interaction with gender issues creates an additional level of discrimination.

The Bolivian Immigrant Community

Sergio Arriente, a researcher in Buenos Aires, focuses on the causes and effects of Bolivian migration to Argentina in his research. In an interview with COHA, Professor Arriente asserted that Bolivians emigrate from their country to obtain greater economic opportunities and to satisfy a desire for professional development. He explained “many migrants choose Buenos Aires because it is a commercial center…and has many opportunities for labor.”

Originally Bolivian immigrants would come to Buenos Aires to work and would later return to Bolivia, but in the 1980s this pattern began to change. That decade saw an economic crisis in Bolivia which led to high unemployment and an exacerbation of the gap between rich and poor. Arriente believes that the now growing community of Bolivians in the country encourages new immigration to Buenos Aires, since social networks and opportunities are available within the already existent Bolivian community. Arriente states that due to a clash of cultural values, racism, discrimination, and labor exploitation, 80% of Bolivians would like to return to their place of origin, while only 15% feel that they will be able to integrate into society and give their children improved opportunities. The remaining 5% are from the middle and upper classes and, he states, are content to work in their fields earning good salaries.

After completing his research, Arriente concluded that Bolivian immigration to Argentina will continue as long as the opportunities in Bolivia remain limited. He also says that the Bolivian government should try to negotiate to remove the fees and other obstacles to Bolivians in Argentina who want to return to Bolivia. Above all, he says that the Argentine state must encourage cultural events and discussions on the theme of reducing racism and the exploitation of Bolivians residing in Argentina.

Limited Options: Niche Creation

In Buenos Aires, there is a visible identification of certain immigrant groups with specific traditional trades and occupations. For example, vendors of gold and other jewelry are often of African descent, while mid-level grocery store owners are generally Asian. The creation of niches in which a certain immigrant group is able to operate is characteristic of immigrant life in Buenos Aires.

While looking for the presence of niches, one must consider gender, race, and economic class. One example of this concept is the Bolivian community of greater Buenos Aires. One 2007 study published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (“From Mining to Garment Workshops: Bolivian Migrants in Buenos Aires” by Tanja Bastia) found that Bolivian women were more likely to be employed in the garment industry while the men were heading for the mining industry. An explanation for this is unequal access, which leads immigrant women to the garment industry, domestic work, and other economic sectors. Another example can be found among Paraguayan immigrants. As indicated in a study by Sebastián Bruno at the University of Buenos Aires, Paraguayan immigrants are overrepresented in the construction industry.

Working Conditions

According to a recent article in the Buenos Aires newspaper La Nación regarding a raid on an illegal garment factory, “approximately half of the 160 thousand workers in the textile industry don’t work in the formal workshops.” At the same time, the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INDEC) figures that as much as 78% of the total of apparel industry in the country is illegal.

Gustavo Vera (President of a cooperative called La Alameda that works to improve the conditions of garment workers in Buenos Aires), says that “there are 3,000 clandestine workshops in the capital…there are also 15,000 clandestine workshops…in the surrounding regions…these workshops employ more than 200,000 people who are reduced to forced or even slave labor, which is similar to forced labor except they are controlled 24 hours a day by the owner.”

The large number of legal and illegal immigrants in the garment manufacturing industry demonstrates the kind of work in which immigrants are engaged. Bastia’s study reports that these workshops are overcrowded and have limited ventilation, making for miserable twelve to seventeen hour work days, six to seven days a week. The poor conditions are partly attributable to the efforts of unregistered workshops, which try to maintain a low profile by using smaller windows and low lighting. Employers limit the movement of undocumented workers by constantly threatening to turn them over to authorities. Attention to the shameful conditions in the garment industry has increased since 2006 when a fire killed six workers—including four minors— in a crowded Buenos Aires apparel workshop.

Owners of such workshops are often Bolivian or Korean. Bastia writes that while the Bolivian employers are seen as providing better training, Korean bosses are often believed to pay higher wages. These perceptions impact the Korean population in Buenos Aires as they also fall upon the foundations of niche creation. Estimates place the Asian-Argentine population at around 180,000. Asian immigrants are often perceived by native Argentines to be exotic due to lack of familiarity with their cultures.

Immigrant women often take domestic jobs because such positions frequently include meals and provide housing that can compensate for a worker’s lack of personal resources and connections. These jobs allow workers to save money and send some remittances back to their families. However, domestic jobs are not always so desirable. In their book Muchachas no More, Chaney and Garcia Castro describe the harsh conditions, long hours, low salaries, and frequent instances of sexual harassment that domestic workers must face. In these situations, household workers are often bereft of their rights, and there is no support of organized labor to defend them.

Actions Being Taken

In 2004, Argentina passed The National Migratory Plan of the Argentine Republic (PLN), which guarantees many rights for migrants. These rights and services include healthcare, education, family reunion, and a path to regular migratory status. These laws are beneficial to immigrants, but many still live invisible lives and work under harsh conditions.

A couple of years after the PLN was announced, the creation of MERCOSUR (Common Market of the South) impacted the migration situation by removing many negative restrictions. Under MERCOSUR, anyone from the member nations of Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay can become a resident of Argentina with a simplified process that involves little more than a background check. This expedited process was included after the launch of the National Program of Migrant Regularization, “Patria Grande.”

Other organizations like the International Organization of Immigration have programs designed to be responsive to victims of human trafficking and child labor. Often children work in the waste recovery programs in Buenos Aires as a segment of the large work staff which begins sorting through the trash left in the street looking for recyclables. Human trafficking is another growing issue in Buenos Aires, as women are introduced to the sex trade and kept there through coercion or destitution. According to a U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report issued in June 2009, “Foreign women and children, primarily from Paraguay, Brazil, Peru, and the Dominican Republic, are trafficked to Argentina [to work in the country’s sex industry] … A significant number of Bolivians, Paraguayans, and Peruvians are trafficked into the country for forced labor in sweatshops and agriculture.”

A Global Challenge

As the number of migrants worldwide continues to grow—the last ten years show increasing numbers ranging from 150 million to 214 million—nations can no longer afford to ignore the conditions of this segment of their population. Migrants are often marginalized and represent a distinctively vulnerable group. Migrant issues affect many countries throughout the hemisphere, not just the United States. The situation explored here represents a challenge to Argentina, which must curb the high rates of racism to cope with and remedy the poor living standards that are the daily lot of large numbers of immigrants.

Andrew Eller is a COHA Research Associate


COHA, or Council on Hemispheric Affairs, was founded in 1975, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), a nonprofit, tax-exempt independent research and information organization, was established to promote the common interests of the hemisphere, raise the visibility of regional affairs and increase the importance of the inter-American relationship, as well as encourage the formulation of rational and constructive U.S. policies towards Latin America.

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