Argentina has not achieved consistent economic growth for over a decade and is suffering from runaway inflation exceeding more than 100 inflation. Some 18 million people live below the poverty line, with unemployment running at seven percent. But despite that troubled panorama, hundreds of thousands of immigrants continue to arrive annually to begin a new life here.
Bearing the country’s complicated situation in mind, and unfavourable comparisons with other countries in the region with stabler economies such as Uruguay, not to mention Europe or elsewhere, why do they come here?
In this article, different researchers explore the multiple reasons which lead emigrants to choose Argentina. The motives are extremely varied and sometimes unexpected – for some, even the weather is taken into account!
More enter than leave
There are more than three million immigrants here in Argentina, while there are approximately a million Argentines living abroad - i.e. more people enter than leave.
“The number of those born abroad with DNI [identity document] residence in Argentina in 2022 is 3,033,786,” states a report issued by the Dirección Nacional de Población. It’s worth noting that, with the inclusion of undocumented immigrants, the figure is likely higher.
Most foreigners living in Argentina hail from other parts of Latin America. Over half are from Paraguay and Bolivia, followed by Peru (9.54 percent), Venezuela (7.27 percent), Chile (6.98 percent), Uruguay (4.23 percent) and Colombia (3.69 percent).
“Emigration is a human and ancestral impulse. We are all immigrants, our ancestors were and so will our descendents be,” said Professor Mariana García from Rosario University’s immigration study group.
“Even before it formed a nation, Argentina was an immigrant country. The indigenous peoples crossed over into this territory before its political frontiers existed. The arrival of Europeans and enslaved Africans form the history of immigration in this country, added to the immigrant waves from the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” said the doctor.
According to official data, 849,717 residence permits were granted in 2021. Whereas in Uruguay, where 10 percent live below the poverty line (according to its government’s Continuous Household Survey), immigrants represent 3.1 percent of the population, in Argentina, with 39 percent impoverished (according to the INDEC national statistics bureau), foreigners account for 6.5 percent.
We’ve underlined that there are arrivals, but why exactly do they come?
“In general, Argentina is a good place for immigrants,” says teacher and CONICET (National Scientific and Technical Research Council) researcher Dr María Dolores Linares, who has a doctorate in social sciences and geography. “It has no wars nor authoritarian regimes, it participates in international conventions respecting human rights and forms part of a cultural tradition incorporating the rights of women, minorities and immigrants.”
She continues: “If we take the map and delete the countries which are at war or with levels of extreme violence, not too many countries are left. Without going to such extremes, Argentina is, within Latin America, one of the most attractive countries for immigrants, offering scope for interaction and the possibilities of global cities: cultural diversity, social opportunities and technological resources.”
Nevertheless, she concludes: “Argentina is not among the nations with the highest percentage of foreigners in its population, neither in the world nor in Latin America.”
Fellow CONICET researcher Brenda Matossian, who also has a doctorate in geography, agrees that the number of immigrants in Argentina is not especially large.
“We have not yet counted the specific data of the 2022 Census but in the last three censuses foreigners as a percentage of total population remained within a range of 4.2 and five percent.,” she said.
“According to the 1914 census, the foreign population reached 30 percent so that almost a third of the then-population had not been born in Argentina. If we collate the current percentages of Argentina with other traditionally immigrant countries, they are limited. In Canada 21 percent of the population was born abroad, in Australia 30 percent and in Spain 14 percent while in Chile it has increased recently to 8.6 percent,” said Matossian.
“Argentina continues to be a good possibility within the region as a country offering a society with an immigrant tradition and the consolidated networks of communities who had already settled here decades ago. The motivation for the decision to immigrate is not only economic,” the specialist underlines.
What about the other motives? Is “Argentine hospitality” really a point to consider when integrating?
“I’m close to my home, with almost no time difference. Culturally we are very similar. I like the cultural offer, the style of community life and the quality of the services. The Argentines are open and hospitable,” said Chilean Maximiliano Stuardo, a recent arrival in Buenos Aires, in an interview.
“The concept of integration is much debated in immigration studies – we’d need to define what is meant by integration,” analyses Linares. “If we inquire into the relations between immigrants and with society in general, ... there are communities with more possibilities of inclusion than others due to their mother tongue, education, professional training and associations.”
Concerning integration, the researchers stress the need for a community-by-community evaluation – it’s impossible to provide a global answer for all immigrants.
Red tape (or lack of it)
Having looked a little at why, next let’s move on to how. Are immigrant procedures simple?
“No, immigrants have to pass through procedures, comply with requisites and enter the country legally. For aspiring immigrants beyond the region regularisation can be more complicated but for those from Mercosur [nations – namely Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay], once they have sorted out the appointments and waiting period, they can have access to a temporary residence [permit], which must be renewed until acceding to a permanent one,” responds Linares, who singles out relatives as a key factor for immigrants when making their decision.
García continues exploring the reasons: “This is a country with an extended territory and good weather … There’s also a constitutional spirit proposing immigration. Immigration Law 25,871, which guarantees the right to immigrate, is considered a model in the world.”
Linares adds: “Every person has the right of access to basic education, public healthcare and justice, irrespective of their immigrant status. That means that a person still unable to regularise the situation of their children can nevertheless send them to school and give them attention at a public hospital.”
Which leads us nicely on to a question that will interest those directly opposed to immigration: Are free public health and education driving people into the country to take advantage?
“The access to schooling and health are rights which, although often weak, are conquests, which we might say are valued by immigrants,” responds political scientist Florencia Bottazzi, a member of the No Sin Mujeres group of political scientists.
“In my research experience, immigrants have never expressed their decision to come to this country as arising out of the possibility of getting a social handout or access to public health. They instead underline the possibilities of developing professionally and finding better employment than in their country of origin, as well as the possibilities of regularising their documents,” recounts Linares.
“There are nationalities like the Colombian which at some point have decided to come to study at a university. The cost-benefit calculations suit them,” she admits.
Medical students from Ecuador and Brazil are a similar case in point – half those entering the Faculty of Medicine at La Plata University come from abroad.
And social assistance? Linares responds: “Immigrants tend to be excluded from welfare policies, whose requisites include a certain number of years [of residence] in the country.”
She continues: “Regarding access to the IFE emergency family benefit [issued during the coronavirus pandemic], while 30 percent of Argentine applications were rejected, the rejection rate was over 70 percent for foreigners. Half the Bolivians were rejected and 70 percent of Chileans while no Venezuelan received assistance when they, paradoxically, were sustaining in some way city life with food delivery services, for example. If we take into account the Asignación Universal por Hijo child benefit, we can see that only eight percent of its beneficiaries had been born abroad.”
“According to the 2020 National Immigrant Survey, only 33 percent of immigrants had received social assistance,” she said. To qualify the remark, 33 percent equates to around one million people in this context.
In his first few months in Argentina, Stuardo noted another motive not yet mentioned, namely the exchange rate and the growing numbers of digital nomads: “I work remote in my country. In Argentina my cost of living has been practically halved without counting clothing and technology, which are still more expensive here.”
Is the crisis context a challenge for the country when receiving immigration?
“Argentina has a low population growth so immigration is required for replacement,” responds Mariana García.
“Immigrants contribute to the country, especially because they are of working age and make numerous productive sectors more dynamic,” adds Matossian.
Linares agrees: “You must bear in mind that around 75 percent of the immigrant population is economically active: people who come to work, contribute human resources and pay taxes. The most dynamic countries in the world have percentages of immigrants far superior to ours. Between five and 15 percent of the population is foreign in European countries, 40 percent in the United States and 78 percent in the United Arab Emirates.”
For the expert, “economic crises discourage international migration … Argentina, especially in the last 25 years, has produced both immigrants and emigrants.”
Linares concludes: “The interesting point about the migration issue in the last 10 years has not been so much the quantity, because it has indeed not been so significant, as its diversity. It has not just been a global migration from the south to a ‘rich’ north but also ‘lifestyle’ migration from north to south seeking contact with nature and good living, as well as growing south-south mobility.”
The world keeps on changing, but immigrants keep arriving to Argentina.