Argentina has so often acted amiably as a welcoming refuge for its foreign guests. Arms open wide and with a big toothy grin, Argentina’s historically liberal approach to migration and visitation – even Nazis and Italian fascists were permitted entrance after WWII – stands as a bastion of hope in a world with so many impenetrable borders.
This country has generously handed out visas and has just as generously renewed them. It offers free education for all, and even has free public healthcare without discrimination. Principally, it has done its best to make foreign immigrants and/or tourists feel welcomed, respected, and valued members of Argentine life.
If this had been the prevailing approach seen through legal actions and through politicians’ words, it may be about to change, as we now begin to observe a shift in political discourse to accompany somewhat xenophobic reforms to the criminal code.
It was not too long ago that the government released the long anticipated Criminal Procedural Code reform bill, which, alongside various other modifications, first presented us with the now notorious Article 35. Appearing xenophobia from almost every angle that you looked at it, Article 35 grants immigration authorities additional powers of deportation for foreigners committing crimes, whilst a new provision from the National Migration Office has given border officers additional powers of refusal into Argentine territory. A two-pronged attack on foreigners within and even those abroad, the changes have been thinly veiled as measures to try and curb rising crime rates within the country.
“Thinly veiled” is somewhat of a generous description when taking into account the comments made by Security Secretary Sergio Berni whilst speaking on the reforms. Berni charitably informed us that Argentina has been “infected by a virus of foreign criminals”. Interesting choice of words Sergio, I suppose that swarms of foreign currency have plagued the tourism industry as well.
Adding to this new unexpected discourse, Ministry of Justice official Juan Martín Mena began to speak of a “criminal phenomena related to foreign criminal gangs,” yet failed to produce any empirical evidence to back up his proclamation. In fact, statistically there is no link between rising crime rates and rising immigration, whilst Diego Morales of the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS) notes that foreign criminals only account for a relatively small proportion of Argentine crime.
Finger pointing and political deflection are of course nothing new, and the government’s endeavor at blaming rising crime rates on foreigners and illegal immigrants is a decent, although completely unfounded, attempt. But, it reeks of xenophobia and hypocrisy. After all, President Cristina Kirchner said only four years ago that: “I’m not willing to let Argentina join the club of xenophobic countries across the world,” whilst apologizing to countries that may have been offended, by political opponent, Mauricio Macri, who claimed that immigration was out of control. But, apologies were so 2010, witch-hunts are in season now.
The Criminal Procedural Code reform bill was supposed to breath fresh life into the aging code. We were all hoping for progressive reforms, and some creative modifications, which, for the most part, it has produced, but, almost inevitably, it also contained its fair share of controversy, which peaked with the infamous Article 35.
When the bill was first presented, Article 35 stated that foreigners, without their immigration papers in order, who are caught in the act of committing a crime will be deported without full trial, thus cutting out the majority of regular judicial process. This didn’t go down well with human rights organizations, or government opposition, who claimed that the reform was xenophobic and promoted fascist tendencies.
Eager not to be tarred with the xenophobic/fascist brush, Article 35, along with 41 other aspects of the reform bill, underwent a bit of a makeover, but not a particularly drastic one. The (reformed) reform bill (which was passed by Congress last week) now states that any foreigner, regardless of migratory status, can be deported should they be caught red handed committing a crime that carries a minimum sentence of three years in prison. They would then be prohibited from reentering the country between 5 to 15 years.
Okay, ignoring for a moment the clear xenophobic connotations and the lack of due judiciary process, the new amendment does make Article 35 seem slightly less daunting. The perpetrator would need to be doing something fairly serious for it to come into affect, so a quick switch of some dollars on the “black market” exchange won’t get you booted out, after all. However, complimenting this new set of tools for foreigner deportation, are the new tools that the reform would enable for immigration officials to reject “false tourists,” at the border.
Who and What Are “False Tourists”
Although it may sound like some curious abomination, dreamed up as part of a joint venture by American Airlines and a plastic surgeon, a false tourist is actually the name given to a real person trying to enter Argentina as a tourist, but with other, more sinister intentions. Lawyer at the Ministry of Economic Development and collaborator at the Legal Clinic on Human Rights of Migrants, Inés Gil de Muro clarified the definition for us: “A false tourist would be considered to be anyone that wants to enter the country using a tourist visa, but with the intention of, for example, staying permanently in the territory; that is, using the guise of a “tourist” to circumvent existing procedures, so conducting a “legal” entry into the territory, but with a different purpose than expected for such visa”. By renewing their visa every 90 days, via a quick trip outside the territory, false tourists are able to stay permanently within the country. So that would include a fair proportion of the country’s foreign English teachers, bar tenders, tour guides, oh, and apparently, drug dealers.
If the official line of the government is indeed to be believed, these false tourists enter the country as foreign job-seekers who cannot obtain labor permits, and then proceed to steal work right out of the hands of hard-working citizens, or even worse, they become part of the “virus of foreign criminals” that is “infecting the country”.
Getting Rid of Them
To stem the flow of false tourists entering Argentine territory, the Dirección Nacional de Migraciones has brought into effect the new 4362/2014 provision, which allows immigration officials to demand detailed information from any foreigner at the border that they suspect of being a false tourist. It would allow them to ask for any information that they feel is relevant to their “investigation”, including such things as hotel bookings, credit cards, local acquaintances, and permanent residency records. Should they be unsatisfied with the information provided, they can deny entry into Argentine territory. “It will make it easier to facilitate border rejection. The resolution seeks to ‘regularize’ the process, which is usually handled by border officers with varying intensity,” says Inés.
“However, this policy is only used at the border, so the configuration ‘false tourist’ is prior to entering the country and not later,” she continued. Meaning that those false tourists that have already snuck themselves into the country are not affected by the new provision, but may struggle to reenter once they leave. If indeed they ever find the time to leave, being so busy stealing jobs, mugging old ladies, and selling drugs outside of schools.
As with the old immigration tools, there are doubts about how universal the new provision will be, and whether it will be aimed at specific nationalities rather than others. “Many experts believe that this new legislation will only ‘whitewash’ the situation. Deliberate acts of refusal at the border may remain dependent on the ‘mood’ of the officer on duty,” said Inés. One of the biggest fears is that it plays into the hands of existing stigmas regarding certain other Latin American nationalities. Twelve Colombians have already been refused entry into Argentina as a result of the provision – in that specific case, two of the Colombians complained of “mistreatment” at the hands of the immigration officers – which has led some to suggest that it will be used against people from countries that already have a reputation for criminal – specifically drug related – activity, rather than Europeans or Americans, for example, thus compounding the stereotypes, and the growing xenophobia.
Exactly what it was that drove the Government to change the various laws regarding foreigners is unclear. Many onlookers have claimed that the Government is simply trying to blame rising crime and unemployment on foreigners and illegal immigrants, yet some of those critics have been the very same members of the opposition who have been putting pressure on the Government to increase controls on immigration. The fact is that there is no evidence to support the theory that rising crime is a result of increasing immigration, illegal or otherwise, which would suggest that the government has been influenced by outside pressure and media-driven prejudices, and they then took their opportunity to try and harness some political leverage.
Although it may be easy to say that the new laws will not affect any of the foreigners legitimately living in Argentina, there are many people within the country that do take advantage of the 90-day visa, and who renew it – perfectly legally – every three months to spend more time within the country. They are rarely criminals, they are rarely stealing jobs, and they are rarely here to take advantage of the free provisions within the country. They may be working here remotely, they may be lucky enough not to work, or they may even be doing the jobs that Argentines are not willing to do – as Cristina Kirchner said in 2010. They may partake in a bit of jaywalking, but they are probably not smuggling in kilos of cocaine. They contribute to the economy by bringing and spending foreign currency, and they contribute culturally by bringing different colors, attitudes and flavors from all around the world. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, just like with everything, but it is dangerous and foolish to deter these foreign groups from contributing to the great diversity of the country.
Aside from the changing laws, what is perhaps more concerning is the sudden shift in discourse from the Government. Anti-immigration arguments are all too often used as a default setting for governments looking for scapegoats. It’s a dangerous tactic, and one that rarely serves society as a whole, as it stirs up communal tensions, with sometimes-disastrous results.
Argentina is usually refreshingly open-minded in its approach to foreigners and immigrants, as Inés notes, “The National Constitution shows a clear inclusive consideration, and is responsive towards migrants,” which is true.
But while the changes may only be small for now, a shift in attitude is enough to lead to worrying conclusions.