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Argentina: A New Era of Migration and Migration Policy

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Argentina: A New Era of Migration and Migration Policy

For most of its history, Argentina has been characterized as a country of immigration. Yet global forces, combined with a recent history of economic, political, and social instability, have slowly transformed Argentina into a country of immigration, emigration, and transit.

Whereas millions of Europeans — predominantly from Spain and Italy — made their way to Buenos Aires and beyond at the turn of the 20th century, many of them and their descendants have returned to Europe or gone elsewhere. Since the 1990s, dismal employment prospects coupled with strong foreign-labor demand and, at times, favorable visa policies in countries including the United States, Spain, Italy, and Israel have given rise to a new wave of emigration.

Most recently, Argentina's economic collapse in 2001-2002 saw significant emigration flows of Argentine nationals and immigrants alike. In the past five years, an estimated 300,000 people (many of European descent) have left.

Despite these outflows, however, Argentina's strong demand for predominantly unskilled, low-wage labor ensures its role as a regional immigration hub, consistently attracting new economic migrants from its neighbors in the southern cone of Latin America.

Furthermore, while many foreign workers in Argentina have short-term migration prospects (anticipating another move either home or abroad), others are permanent, as demonstrated by increasing permanent immigration rates in recent years.

Recent Migration History

After gaining its independence from Spain in the early 19th century, Argentina adopted an open immigration policy and encouraged immigrants to embrace the country as their own. For a short period at the end of the 1880s, the government went so far as to subsidize immigrant boat passages. It is estimated that the country received over seven million immigrants, predominantly from Spain and Italy, between 1870 and 1930.

Argentina proved attractive to many foreigners confronted with harsh economic conditions in Europe; they were drawn by the appeal of the New World and an underpopulated country rich in natural resources and employment prospects ranging from agriculture to factory work.

However, about half of these immigrants returned home in the decades that followed. Although return migration existed in all countries, a 50 percent rate of return was notably high. Slow industrial development in Argentina and a "return mentality" on the part of Europeans saving to buy land and reunite with their families in the home country pervaded.

European migration to Argentina began declining in the 1930s during the global economic depression, bouncing back slightly before again decreasing in the 1950s as the economic and political situation in Europe improved after World War II.

Net migration rates in Argentina remained comparatively strong until the 1980s, however, through increased flows from neighboring countries with less robust economies such as Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Chile (see Table 1), whose natives sought employment and higher wages. Due to intense urbanization from rural-urban internal migration flows, many of these southern cone migrants filled the rural labor demand in Argentina.

Table 1. Immigration Flows to Argentina
from Select Latin American Countries, 1960 to 1989
Period of EntryBoliviaChileParaguayUruguay
Source: Demographic Bulletin: International Migration in Latin America. United Nations: Santiago, Chile. January 2000.

Argentina's immigration policies gradually became more restrictive beginning in the 1930s, and gained force in the 1950s due to unstable economic conditions and a series of military dictatorships. These stifling economic and political conditions gave rise to Argentina's first significant emigration outflow of native-born citizens, especially of the highly-skilled, in the late 1960s and 1970s.

An estimated 185,000 Argentines emigrated between 1960 and 1970, and the number climbed to an estimated 200,000 in the decade that followed. Primary destinations of the highly skilled included the United States and Spain, although other Western European countries and Mexico and Venezuela were also destinations.

The low point for net migration coincided with the most recent military dictatorship (1976-1983), during which it is estimated over 300,000 people — predominantly intellectuals, students, and minorities — "disappeared." Although some emigrants returned after the fall of the authoritarian regime in 1983, many Argentines remained abroad and were, for the most part, integrated in their host societies.

Current Emigration Trends

While regional immigration flows to Argentina continued in the 1980s and 1990s, economic opportunities abroad and a lack of opportunity at home caused many Latin Americans to migrate. Growing Argentine emigration rates, particularly of the young and highly skilled, closely follow the larger Latin American trend of those seeking more stable economies and social conditions in Western industrialized nations. An estimated 1.05 million Argentines were living abroad as of March 2005 — double the number from 1985.

The United States is one country that has experienced an increase in Argentine immigration flows over the last decade (see Table 2), with over 60 percent living in just three states: California, Florida, and New York. The majority of permanent immigrants enter under family reunification provisions, whereas most temporary immigrants (not shown in Table 2) enter the United States as specialty workers (H-1B visa), exchange visitors (J-1 visa), and intracompany transferees (L-1 visa).

Table 2. Inflow of Argentine Permanent Immigrants to the United States, 1994 to 2004
Year Inflow
Note: Data exclude temporary visitors and workers, refugees, and asylees.
Source: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2004, Table 3

A strong foreign labor demand and favorable citizenship policies in Spain and Italy — applicable to Argentines who can prove Spanish or Italian ancestry — help explain why these countries also receive a large proportion of Argentine immigrants and Latin American immigrants in general. Argentina's relatively unstable economy and the European Union (EU) policy granting citizens free movement within EU territory have further promoted this trend.

In 2004, 157,323 native-born Argentines were living in Spain, up from 64,020 in 1999. In Italy, the stock of Argentine citizens nearly doubled in the period 1999-2003, from 5,725 to 11,266.

Canada has also seen a marked increase in Argentine immigration: up from 455 permanent residents in 2000 to 1,783 in 2003. More significantly perhaps, Argentina has risen in the ranks of top Latin American source countries to Canada — from 13th to 5th in that same time period.

Remittances to Latin America make up nearly one-third of the world's total share. Although remittance flows to Argentina are not among the region's largest, their significance continues to grow.

According to the National Migration Directorate, remittances to Argentina reached $724 million in 2004, triple the 2001 figure. Some of this growth is attributable to improved calculation methods, but remittances to Argentina — as in the rest of the region — have increased remarkably. Remittances are used for a combination of basic needs, debt repayment, and investment purposes, although their primary uses in Argentina have not been thoroughly studied.

Immigrant Populations and Settlement Patterns

To date, over 65 percent of the country's foreign-born population of 1,531,940 comprises immigrants from neighboring countries (see Figure 1), and only 4.2 percent of the population is foreign born compared with its peak of 30 percent in 1914. Nevertheless, Argentina's net migration rate remains positive at 0.4/1,000 population in 2005, and the country is host to over half of South America's migrant population.

Figure 1. Top Eight Source Countries in Argentina as a Percentage
of the Total Foreign-Born Population, 2001
Note: The total foreign-born population used here is 1,531,940.
Source: INDEC, Censo Nacional de Poblacíon, Hogares y Viviendas 2001, Argentina

The country's urban immigrant unemployment rate was relatively low at 11.7 percent in 2003, compared to a total urban unemployment rate of 15.6 percent for that same year. Among migrants who have spent less than five years in Argentina, the rate was 11.2 percent.

These low rates correspond to a high demand for unskilled low-wage labor, the circular nature of many regional migration flows (in part fostered by seasonal work opportunities), a large informal economy, and the relatively free movement of workers within the Mercosur region — a South American free trade zone between Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, and Uruguay.

Immigrant populations in Argentina have varied and historically motivated settlement patterns. For the most part, immigrants from neighboring countries can be found in those Argentine provinces closest to their country of origin because early immigrants often replaced rural internal migrants who sought better opportunities in Buenos Aires and other urban centers.

Chilean immigrants can be found primarily in the southern region of Patagonia and in those provinces along the Andes. Bolivians, Paraguayans and Brazilians mainly settle in the northern provinces of Argentina, closest to their respective countries. These immigrants usually fill agricultural, factory, and service-related occupations.

Uruguayans have the highest proportion of immigrants living in metropolitan Buenos Aires, mainly due to the high-skilled profile of this immigrant group and geographic proximity. The remaining neighboring immigrants who settle in Buenos Aires, predominantly Paraguayans and Bolivians, fill low-skilled service occupations such as domestic workers.

There are smaller, although significant, groups of Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants living in Argentina, primarily in metropolitan Buenos Aires. Armenian, Syrian, and Lebanese as well as Korean, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants have entered in recent years to work in primarily low-skilled occupations. Often times these immigrants enter through family reunification or humanitarian provisions, or without legal authorization.

Immigration Structure and Administration

Argentina's long history of international migration explains its well-established immigration system, which is housed under the Ministry of Interior. Twenty-one delegations and seven migration offices span the country, which is lined with 230 controled points of entry for land, air, and sea traffic.

Over the years, Argentina's immigrant admissions system has evolved to include three main avenues of entry: permanent, temporary, and humanitarian flows. Generally speaking, permanent immigrant admissions (through family reunification and employment) have steadily increased, although the economic crisis of 2001-2002 caused a noticeable decline in 2002 (see Figure 2). Nevertheless, admissions are expected to rise again as economic and political conditions become more stable.

Figure 2. Permanent Immigration Admissions to Argentina by Year, 1995 to 2002
Source: Ministry of Interior, National Migration Directorate, June 2003

Admissions flows under humanitarian (mainly refugee) provisions have never been significant in Argentina, despite its becoming party to the 1951 Geneva Convention in 1961. In 1985, Argentina created a separate government agency, part of the Ministry of Interior, charged with assisting those seeking protection. In 2004, there were approximately 2,600 recognized refugees in Argentina according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) — natives of Armenia, Laos, Cuba, Colombia, and Algeria are some of the more significant populations.

Immigration and Integration Policy Developments

Following the 1990s and a prolonged period of democratic regimes, Argentina has moved from a piecemeal immigration policy approach — characterized by periodic amnesties and sporadic efforts at combating illegal immigration — toward a guided, more open conception of immigration. A series of Mercosur provisions has led this shift, most important of which is the 2002 Free Movement and Residence agreement, which Chile and Bolivia also signed. Numerous bilateral accords and a multiyear process of reconstructing the immigration system have also contributed to this change.

The Mercosur Free Movement and Residence agreement is similar to the EU model of open borders. It grants Mercosur citizens (as well as natives of Chile and Bolivia) an automatic visa and the freedom to work and live within the space, provided they have no criminal record for the past five years. In essence, this agreement serves to regularize regional unauthorized immigrants — a constant policy problem for Argentina in particular.

The new Migration Law passed by Congress in December 2003 includes numerous important policy changes as well, giving migrants universal access to education and health care, free legal representation, the right to a fair trail prior to expulsion, and the right to family reunification. These measures were prompted by the desire to create a comprehensive immigration system based on democratic values instead of the previous military-defined framework, and they were influenced by the growing human rights movement in the region.

As part of the reform, government efforts to support Argentines abroad or those wishing to emigrate also have been developed.

Argentina's most recent policy development is the immigrant regularization program for non-Mercosur citizens residing in the country since June 30, 2004. The majority of these migrants are from China or Korea although some Latin Americans also participated.

Two-year temporary legal status is granted to all successful applicants. Immigrants may then choose to renew their status for another two years before seeking permanent citizenship. This regularization program, similar to other recent policy developments, was created to foster formal employment, immigrant integration, and a universal-rights oriented framework.

Beginning July 7, 2004, unauthorized immigrants had 180 days to apply for regularization. As of November 8, 2005, the program had adjudicated 900 applications.

Argentina in the Global Migration Context

Argentina has evolved from a leading immigrant destination in the early 20th century to a country with a dualistic migration environment: it attracts predominantly regional immigrants while experiencing emigration flows of mainly young, highly skilled natives. Immigration flows are both circular and permanent and, for the most part, fill the low-skilled, low-wage labor demand in both rural and urban settings.

As Argentina's economic and political conditions become increasingly stable, so too does the country's migration profile. Argentina can expect to continue to receive significant regional immigration flows while continuing to act as a sending country. As a result, immigrant remittances will continue to play a role in the country's economy, although, according to current trends, Argentina will remain less dependent on remittances than its Latin American neighbors.

Contrary to global trends, recent migration policy developments in Argentina are framed towards creating a more open immigration regime. In most immigration countries, such as the United States and the UK, security concerns as well as the desire to control and limit increasingly large migration flows are driving policy reform. By opening access to the country, especially for regional immigrants, Argentina provides an interesting case study of free movement for the developing world.

Eschewing more restrictive immigration policies of the past for a human rights and immigrant integration guided system means international migration will continue to influence Argentina's landscape.


CIA World Factbook (2005). Argentina. Available online.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada (2004). “Facts and Figures 2003. Immigration Overview: Permanent Residents.” Ottawa, ON. Available online.

Dirección Nacional de Migraciones

Instituto Nacional de Estadística de España (INE)

Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos de la Republica Argentina (INDEC). Permanent Household Survey (EPH). Available online (see migration statistics).

Latin American News Digest (2005). "Remittances to Argentina at $724 Million in 2004." March 14.

Novick, Susana (2005). "Evolución Reciente de la Política Migratoria Argentina." Paper presented at the XXV Internacional Population Conference, Tours, France, July 18-23. Available online.

Solimano, Andrés (2003). "Development Cycles, Political Regimes and International Migration: Argentina in the twentieth century." Economic Development Division, No.22, ECLAC/CEPAL: Santiago, Chile, January.

UNHCR (2004). "Refugiados en Argentina: Estadísticas y Otros Datos de Interés." June. Available online.