Adventure, opportunity, escapism, the accessible Latin America, romantic visions of tango dancing among La Boca’s coloured corrugated iron, whispers of steak and wine for half the price of home. These are not just reasons to visit Buenos Aires: for increasing numbers of Europeans and North Americans, they represent sufficient motivation to move here. Surprisingly, it is this decision which turns out to be the easy part. The hard bit is Argentine immigration’s bureaucratic labyrinth.
Ask around the Buenos Aires expat population and you are likely to be given a colourful variety of answers as to how they remain legally in the country. Long-term ‘tourists’ are often gainfully employed, hopping over to Colonia, Uruguay on a trimonthly-basis to renew their visa. Some live on work visas initially acquired by their company but which remain valid after quitting their job. Or there are a lucky few who benefited from an amnesty around 2005 which was a DNI free-for-all granted to all those who had been resident for over a year in an attempt to get foreign workers out of negro and into blanco.
From Gringo to Gaucho
In an attempt to elucidate the situation, Sergio Rodriguez Oneto, ex-head of immigration, stresses that “you have to differentiate between tourist and residency visas”. Anyone can come to Argentina on a three month tourist visa, and even renew it multiple times by exiting and re-entering the country. “The problem arises when they want to convert themselves into students, residents or workers.” The reason for this is because “there’s no immigration law in Argentina permitting a foreigner to install themselves of their own accord. In principle, it has to be done in relation to existing work with a company or person to grant it.”
The simplest and most frequent motives for remaining in Argentina are family regrouping; immigration for work, study or investment purposes; or immigration for pensioners and those of independent means. Beyond them are myriad unusual and more specific cases.
According to the law, permanent residency can be acquired by renewing a visa on a yearly basis over three years. If this is completed satisfactorily, then provided the conditions for which the person initially obtained residency remain the same, they become eligible to stay permanently in Argentina without having to renew their documents.
This is separate from the DNI, which grants foreigners the same rights (except voting) and legal protection as Argentines. It can be obtained regardless of whether residence is temporary or permanent. For temporary residents, the DNI is successive and lasts for the duration of the visa, which must be renewed yearly. However, this is time-consuming and often if applied for it will only be issued after a six month period, rendering it useless for half the year. The unfortunate reality is, as Oneto puts it: “the office that grants DNI functions poorly. So it can often be an administrative error which interferes with acquiring a DNI rather than the actual regulations. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t.”
A System Riddled with Errors
Although there is a uniform list of documents which the immigration authorities are required to control unless the request for residency is unusual, anectodal evidence suggests otherwise. Numerous applicants have been sent back and forth in search of obscure documents, only to swap notes with those equally exasperated by the process and find there to be mind-boggling disparities in what information they have been asked to supply.
One of the most frustrating aspects is the fact that “they mistreat foreigners at immigration for the pure fact of being foreign”. Jon Brandt, a US citizen with an Argentine mother, testifies to this attitude, explaining that during his DNI pursuit “when I told them that I was Argentine (technically yes), suddenly their attitude changed and they were friendly”. Oneto believes the authorities deliberately over-complicate the process as in principle, obtaining residency in Argentina “is not difficult”.
Provided, that is, everyone plays by the rules. Oneto asserts that it is not just the immigration authorities who are to blame. Foreigners often want to “bend the rules to suit themselves”. He suggests that “people have to accept that if you come as a tourist then you are a tourist. The conflicts arise when you get people coming and thinking to themselves ‘oh I like it here, I think I’ll stay’. It’s great people want to come and live here but at the same time they have to bring or do something which benefits the country.”
Who Should Be Allowed In?
Another controversial aspect of Argentina’s policy is that it favours foreigners from Mercosur countries (Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay) over other nationalities. Oneto believes this is a mistaken criterion for selection, which should favour “qualification over nationality”. The approach represents an about-turn from Argentina’s attitude up until 1995, when Europeans were readily granted residency.
Oneto is quick to underscore the fact that immigration laws are politically motivated in any country. People go where they expect to live well and countries known to offer a high standard of living would become swiftly over-saturated were they to operate under a free immigration policy. Oneto suggests that no country in the world has a stable immigration policy, instead they are “born of a precise moment in time”, adapting to suit the rhythms of flux and influx.
From an expat perspective, Michael Legge, British owner of Natural Deli and long-term Buenos Aires resident, explains that “most people do find a way to get what they want”. Furthermore, he concedes that “if you turn the tables round it’s not that easy”. There is perhaps a certain presumption on many expats’ from wealthier nations part that they deserve to stay here. Although the generalisation is that they tend to be creating rather than displacing jobs, Legge refers to an occasional dangerous assumption that Westerners are “the nice face of illegal immigrants”, and that the authorities have better things to worry about.
The Argentine Dream
Beyond the mere question of immigrating is the tempting vision among Europeans and North Americans of setting up a business in a city which CNN Money has described as “cheap-but-cosmopolitan”, with prices which facilitate entrepreneurial risk-taking. However, there is also a darker underbelly to doing business in a country famed for government corruption, a confusing taxation system and strict licensing rules.
Legge explains that the key problem is the disproportionately large sums requested by Argentina’s tax system as an attempt to compensate for the huge numbers of people who fail to pay taxes. This is “an incentive to hide as much as you can” from the authorities as doing things by the book would in many cases mean that most small businesses would be unable to launch. The result is a vicious cycle, with entrepreneurs effectively forced to work en negro, thus perpetuating the need to make taxes so high in the first place.
Instead of rejoicing over a virtual carte blanche to evade taxes, “most expats would prefer a simple fair tax system where you don’t have to hide because the hassle involved in not paying is worse than paying”. The situation which has arisen is a catch-22 in which it is often cheaper to pay bribes than legal taxes, thereby penalising the most honest. Regardless of whether they play by the rules or not, business-owners lament that the inspectors will always find something to criticise.
Business in Buenos Aires
According to Legge, the Argentine reception to his venture was an inquiring “why would you want to be here?” when he arrived in the wake of the economic crisis. This has given way to the boom in immigration from developed countries which Buenos Aires is experiencing at the moment. The press touts the city’s tourist delights and propagates what Legge terms “the romantic ideal of Buenos Aires”. The result is a delayed effect in which people come paradoxically both anticipating social stability and the low prices of the early noughties.
That “foreigners can figure out the Argentine system and make things work” is often met with surprise. Furthermore, Legge has registered a self-denigrating response to the obviously foreign concept of Natural Deli, along the lines of “it’s been done well so it must have been done by a foreigner”. He claims that reactions are mixed, with some suppliers displaying more trust in foreign business-owners, while others attempt to take advantage, for instance selling products past their sell-by date.
Slowing Down the Pace
In recent years the expat population has exploded and US entrepreneur Martin Frankel suggests a major change since he moved to Buenos Aires three years ago is the development of support networks. At the time he spied a gap in the market, and created Expat Connection, which aims “to help expats start building a social network and a life here” through a mailing list and regular events. Frankel now estimates that one of the draws of Argentina is now the prevalence of expat community organisations.
According to Frankel, the reason for the overwhelming presence of foreigners in Argentina is “a lifestyle decision”. On a business level, he attributes it to the fact that “the US and Europe are oversaturated and hypercompetitive. Here there are a lot of things which haven’t been done or are being done poorly. You can take risks for a lot less money.”
However, the decision to immigrate is becoming “less and less a money issue as inflation eats into your buying power and rent is expensive”. Instead, Frankel believes the appeal lies in Argentine society. “Argentines work to live whereas North Americans live to work. There’s a philosophical difference underlying society, another pace of life. Weekends are consecrated to friends and family whereas in the US the number one priority is your career.”
A Change of Scenery
Argentina is and always has been a country of immigrants. What differentiates these new immigrants from Europe or North America is their lack of economic motivation. It is not desperation which forces the majority to leave their countries, it’s the search for something different. They are willing to leap over all hurdles to plant roots in what Oneto terms a “pole of attraction for Latin America”. Yet though often disheartening and always unpleasant, pursuing a DNI is an over-complicated, bureaucratic nightmare which reads like a Kafka novel…but which can be done.
In order to become a resident there are several means available:
Familial regrouping: Either marrying an Argentine or having a child in Argentina. Unlike in Europe, where nationality is commonly defined by “right of blood”, in most of Latin America “right of birthplace” is favoured. This means that the pure fact of having a child in Argentina, regardless of its parents’ nationalities, grants the entire family Argentine citizenship.
Immigration for work purposes: A company with a branch or office in Argentina elects to send an employee to work in Argentina. It is then the responsibility of the company to apply for and obtain a work visa for the employee.
Immigration for study purposes: Foreigners wanting to study in Argentina. Potential students must first be accepted into an institution recognised by the Argentine authorities. If accepted, they are also granted permission to work.
Immigration for investment purposes: Residency is granted provided the investors demonstrate their intention to invest a pre-determined sum of money in an industrial or commercial venture.
Immigration for pensioners: People who receive a certain amount of money per month from their national government or pension, thus proving that they will not be a drag on society.
To apply, the necessary documentation should be passport, birth certificate, police record from both the country of origin and Argentina as well as the relevant evidence to support the individual’s reasons for wishing to remain in Argentina (e.g. marriage certificate, work contract, letter from education establishment).
A sample of expat blogs to help you wade through the bureaucracy…