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