Argentina’s Immigration Crackdown Rattles Bolivia

Argentinian President Macri’s crackdown on immigrants, echoing Trump, ignites a fierce national debate and raises diplomatic tensions with Bolivia.

Bolivian president Evo Morales meets with Argentine president Mauricio Macri (La Razón)
Bolivian president Evo Morales meets with Argentine president Mauricio Macri (La Razón)

A recently-elected president—a billionaire and former real estate magnate—issues a controversial order cracking down on migrants who seek to enter the country and making it easier to deport foreign nationals. Congressional allies call for a border wall and a special immigration police force.

This isn’t Trump’s America, but Argentina, where President Mauricio Macri’s recent immigration decree has ignited a fierce national debate and raised regional diplomatic tensions—especially with neighboring Bolivia, which has one of the largest immigrant populations in Argentina.

Under the emergency decree, promulgated on January 30, immigrants can be deported or barred from entering Argentina not only if they have committed a major crime, but also if they have been accused of virtually any criminal offense, even if not yet convicted. This includes, for example, minor infractions such as selling illegal merchandise in the street, or participating in a road blockade or land occupation. Argentinian judges and prosecutors are now legally obligated to report such criminal charges to immigration authorities, paving the way for expulsion.

What’s more, the deportation process has been modified to bypass the courts, circumvent due process rights, and expedite the timeframe for removal. A special detention center has been established in Buenos Aires where accused migrants will be held in custody, pending deportation. A new National Border Commission will crack down on entry by suspected criminals.

The emergency measures are ostensibly designed to curb a rising wave of drug-related crime, which the Macri administration has linked to the influx of predominantly indigenous and poor migrants across Argentina’s northern border. Government officials point to statistics showing that 22% of Argentina’s federal prison inmates, and 33% of those imprisoned for drug trafficking, are foreign nationals. According to Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, “Many Paraguayan, Bolivian, and Peruvian citizens act as investors, mules, or drivers, or as part of a [supply] chain in the world of drug trafficking.”

The allegations prompted an angry response from Bolivian President Evo Morales, whose country sends more immigrants to Argentina than anywhere else in the world. “These discriminatory policies that condemn migration and blame it for crime, drug- and people-trafficking, [and] terrorism…are a shameful regression in the face of the rights conquered through the struggle of our peoples,” Morales charged. “Brother Latin American presidents, let us be a great homeland; let us not follow the migratory policies of the north.”

As Morales and other critics of the decree have noted, the percentage of all prison inmates in Argentina who are immigrants (less than 6%) is about the same as the percentage of immigrants in the general population (4.5%). Of the estimated 1.3 million Bolivians now living in Argentina, only 273—or less than .02%–are incarcerated criminals.

The new decree has unleased a wave of xenophobia against Bolivian immigrants in Argentina. Since its promulgation, numerous raids have been carried out in immigrant neighborhoods and at bus terminals in Buenos Aires. Immigrants have been held for 12 hours while their backgrounds are investigated, striking fear into communities where Bolivian families have lived, in many cases, for decades.

Argentina’s fraught and sometimes contradictory relationship with immigrants and indigenous peoples has been central to its history. The 19th century “wars of conquest” killed off most of the native indigenous population. In the early 20th century the government welcomed millions of European migrants to help populate and develop the country, associating immigration with economic prosperity. An estimated 79% of Argentinians today—including Mauricio Macri—are descended from European immigrants.

Since the late 20th century, strong demand for unskilled low-wage labor has made Argentina a regional magnet for economic migrants, especially from poorer nations in the Southern Cone. Historically,…