Rethinking immigration: Argentina’s open borders

Marina is there whenever I make my way to or from the subway station, manning her post on the footpath. She offers passers-by avocados for about 40 cents each, a far better price than what you’d get at the local greengrocers. Sometimes I buy her produce, making small talk as I do. I’ve learned that she is from Bolivia, and that she has lived here in Argentina for the last 14 years. The perpetually bored police officer stationed on the nearby corner often comes over and hangs out beside her. The two of them chat for hours. He was there on the day where she explained to me that – despite having lived in Argentina for so long – she gets by on expired tourist visas, renewing them at the border whenever she returns from visiting home. Bolivian citizenship entitles her to an infinitely renewable 2-year residency visa, but she sees no reason to go through the trouble of applying

I turned towards the policeman. ‘And you don’t mind?’

He laughed at me. ‘It’s legal. It’s in our constitution.’

The preamble to the Argentine constitution makes no distinction between Argentines and anyone else, simply stating that its provisions apply to ‘all people who to wish to live on Argentine soil.’ Additionally, Article 20 states that ‘foreigners in the nation’s territory are entitled to all the civil rights of citizens. ’ This has been interpreted by lawmakers and the courts literally. Apart from particularly violent criminals, Argentina doesn’t deport foreigners. Just like citizens, they receive free healthcare in public hospitals, free primary and secondary schooling, pay no tuition in public universities, and are entitled to welfare. Further still, living in the country for two years, with or without legal status, constitutionally entitles you to citizenship.

Coming from Australia, where border security rhetoric is a national pastime, this was a revelation. Immigration policy is a historic cornerstone of our politics, to the extent that the White Australia Policy was implemented within a year of federation. When our elected officials aren’t busy likening immigrants to some sort of invading barbarian horde, they’re setting quotas and criteria that judge prospective migrants by their economic utility.

This is in stark contrast to immigration in Argentina, even if its legal status is something of an historical accident. In drafting the country’s constitution, in 1853, the founding fathers had hoped that these provisions would spur an influx of white Europeans. Instead, they inadvertently ensured that the immigration of all peoples would be enshrined as a human right. Despite the country’s historic instability and its tendency towards social conservativism, you don’t hear much – if anything – about immigration policy, even during an election cycle or in times of crisis. Indeed, Argentina is presently plagued by rampant inflation and earlier this year enlisted the ‘help’ of the International Monetary Fund. Yet the immigration scapegoat – the first thing to be blamed for practically any of society’s woes in the West – has yet to rear its ugly head here. It would almost be apt to say that Argentina’s immigration policy is to not have one, if it weren’t for recent attempts to pass anti-immigrant legislation by its new right-wing government. Nonetheless, these have proved fruitless, as the proposed legislation that would have legalised the deportation of people without valid visas was predictably struck down as unconstitutional by the courts.


Stefan is from Senegal and plies his trade a few blocks from my apartment building. He leans against a wall, behind an assortment of goods laid out on a sheet on the pavement. During the winter I bought a scarf from him, one that I still use. Now that it’s sunnier, his inventory has adapted, and warm clothing has been replaced with sunglasses and wallets. When we first met, I was intrigued, wondering what would bring a young, French-speaking man from Africa to a Spanish-speaking South American country in dire economic straits. When I asked him, he smiled.


As we got to know each other, he loosened up. His real reason was the same as most migrants – the search for a better life. Having heard about Argentina’s immigration-friendly laws back in Senegal, he and some friends decided that it was a better option than trying to obtain legal residency in Europe. They crossed the border illegally from Bolivia – the only country on the continent that offers visa exemptions to Senegalese citizens – and it was smooth sailing from there. His lack of official immigration status means he can’t get a government-issued National Identity Document (DNI), which has resulted in difficulties to find a bank that would let him open an account. There are also more trivial inconveniences, such as the fact that he is ineligible for a supermarket rewards card. Ironically, the lack of a DNI is much more problematic when dealing with the private sector than it is when accessing public services. Despite these issues, it’s clear from his brand-name clothing and iPhone that he’s doing just fine dealing exclusively in cash.

‘We all like it here,’ he told me. ‘One more year and we can apply for citizenship.’

West African street vendors are famously a staple of cities like Barcelona, where they even have their own union and a co-op clothing line. It’s less known that they’ve recently become just as common in downtown Buenos Aires, due to the fact that it’s nearly impossible for young, working-class people like Stefan to legally migrate to a developed nation. Contrary to the usual stereotypes, these migrants are factoring much more than just economic opportunity into their choice of destination. The fact that they have come to a developing country with half the GDP per capita of Spain and a 3-year inflation rate of 20% shows they value the security offered by its constitution over economic power and stability.

Here in Argentina, you don’t need to be assessed based on your economic worth or be granted one of a limited number of humanitarian visas to be deemed worthy of legally living within the nation’s borders. There is no fear that you’ll be reported by a neighbour, or that you’ll be woken up in the middle of the night by a raid, or that a police officer will challenge you to prove your immigration status, nor any of the many other daily terrors that irregular migrants endure elsewhere. It’s no wonder that many consider this an attractive alternative to the usual immigration paradigms.

We commonly treat border security and immigration policy as if they are immutable parts of nature. Even on the Left, rhetoric is framed within these spheres: when we advocate for refugees to be resettled in Australia, for example, we’re implicitly calling for them to be granted legal residency, rather than questioning the existence of such a distinction. The case of Argentina, imperfect as it may be, challenges the idea that people need ever be illegal in the first place.


Image: Detail of mural in Villa Crespo, Buenos Aires, photographed by Rick Powell

George Ganitis

George Ganitis writes stuff, mostly about history and politics. Find him on Twitter at @george_ganitis.

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  1. Great article, there’s not question that South America is much less punative than Australia on this matter.

    A couple of points though, people aren’t exactly knocking down the door to get into Argentina, it is not a wealthy country. Also, one finds that South American countries are really brilliant at absorbing and integrating migrants, so much so that they quite quickly (within a generation or so) drop many of their cultural traits, and at the same time, influence the mainstream culture.

    Truly syncretic. Unlike Australia where the focus is so much on identification by ethnicity.

    Another thing is that working for cash is not a good thing – no superannuation, a working underclass (of migrants), it shouldn’t be valorised.

  2. If a small step for Argentina, why such an unbridgeable gap for Australia, some voters might ask – maybe put it to an indigenous vote first?

  3. 1) Argentina hasn’t had a right wing government in over 90 years , Macri isn’t a right wing politician and much more importantly , he literally made immigration changes to grant full citizenship to Venezuelans on day one this year.

    2) The country is bankrupted , all of those “free” goodies that you mention are of extremely low quality , and we pay 70% net taxing on the private sector per year , these “free” goodies have to go.

    3) Im proud of my country’s immigration policy , but that’s literally the only good policy in Argentina , everything else is a blatant example on what not to do , these same immigration laws with anti-welfareism , anti-“free” govenrment stuff and small government is what made us the richest country in the world per capita in 1895.

    4) The founding father that you dared to try to label as racist (how dare you…) was Juan Bautista Alberdi , he wrote the 1853 constitution with fully pro immigration policy and abolishing slavery federally on it’s first itiration , he wasn’t aiming to get White Europeans because they were white , he aimed to get British immigration because he thought they were more hardworking , he didn’t want German or Swedish immigration and he despiced the French , in fact he atributes a lot of our massive cultural leftism to French influence.

    5) Our inflation rate was 47% in 2018 , over 30% in 2017 and well over 20% in 2016 , what 20% inflation rate in 3 years are you talking about????

    Listen , i love this country , i love its geographical diversity , there’s a bunch of great beautiful landscapes to see everywhere , fully fertile soil in almost all of the country , you can spit a seed of anything into Argentinian soil and something is gonna grow up out of there , im proud that no matter what adversity do we face and boy have we faced a lot of it , we still welcome ANYONE from ANYWHERE , fully legally , with open arms , but this country is absolutely broken because of leftism , statism , social justice and big government , the politicians who literally wrote that fully open border original constitution and abolished slavery in the first constitution weren’t leftist equalitarian populist , they were FAR RIGHT LIBERTARIANS who just wanted freedom for everyone , it was Alberdi , it was Belgrano , it was Julio Roca , these country became poor when Uriburu and then Peron got to power , if you live here long enough …. you’ll have to grow out of your leftist cocoon George.
    Kindly , a random kid from Berazategui – South of Buenos Aires.

    1. So young and your parents have already ruined your life with this indoctrination. At least you’ve got their money.

  4. A couple of pointers:

    1) “Yet the immigration scapegoat – the first thing to be blamed for practically any of society’s woes in the West – has yet to rear its ugly head here.” I think it would be more appropriate to say “the developed West” rather than simply “the West”, because Argentina is a Western country, culturally but not economically.

    2) Concerning juan’s comment “Our inflation rate was 47% in 2018 , over 30% in 2017 and well over 20% in 2016 , what 20% inflation rate in 3 years are you talking about????”….while those inflation rates are now among the highest in the world and are obviously not a good thing, they’re a far cry from the 3- or 4-digit inflation that was rampant in Argentina, Brazil, and some other developing countries some 30-35 years ago.

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