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The Argentines Descended from the Boats: Migration in Argentina


Strolling through the streets of Buenos Aires, it’s not difficult to see the influence that immigration has had in the formation of the city and the Argentine nation. Mismatched architectural styles reflect a diverse array of cultural influences, and the name of any passer-by is just as likely to sound German or Italian as it is to sound Spanish.

In Argentina, 4th September is Immigrants’ Day, a day to commemorate the diverse waves of immigration that have helped formed the demographics of the country’s population and influenced its rich culture.

Map of European immigration to Argentina in the late 19th century (Photo: Beatrice Murch)

Perceptions and Realities: The History of Argentine Immigration

Migration has played a central role in the history of Argentina since the arrival of the Spaniards, who sought to populate the vast expanse of their colonial territory.

After the country gained independence in 1810, its new leaders continued to see migration as a useful tool for the nation’s development. The dominant view towards migration in the country’s early years could be encapsulated by the words of Argentine politician Juan B. Alberdi’s, “to govern is to populate”.

Statistically, immigrants grew as a proportion of Argentina’s total population from the second half of the nineteenth century through World War I. At the peak of immigration in 1914, immigrants represented nearly a third of the total population and nearly half of the population of the city of Buenos Aires.

Since World War I, however, the proportion of immigrants as a proportion of the total population has gradually lowered. In the 2010 census, 4.5% of Argentina’s total population was born in another country.

In Argentina there is an oft-quoted saying, “the Argentines descended from the boats”, which suggests that all Argentines are descendants of European migrants.

The vast waves of European immigration at the start of the century were unquestionably influential in the formation of modern Argentina. European migrants made up the vast majority of migrants to the country during the greatest waves of immigration at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A closer look at the historical statistics of migration to Argentina, however, also reveals that this phrase leaves out other large populations that have immigrated to the country throughout its history.

Hidden behind the massive waves of European migrants arriving at the turn of the twentieth century was a comparable small but steady stream of migrants originating from neighbouring countries. Regional migrants have hovered consistently around 2% of the total population throughout most of Argentina’s history.

Shifts in the Composition of the Foreign-Born Population

And so, while the population of migrants from neighbouring countries has not altered significantly over time as a proportion of the total population, it has come to represent a much greater proportion of the foreign-born population.

At the peak of migration in 1914, migrants from neighbouring countries made up only 8.6% of the foreign-born population. In the years since, that proportion has steadily risen, such that migrants from neighbouring countries made up 68.9% of the foreign-born population in the 2010 census.

This 68.9% represented an 8.7% increase since the last census in 2001. In the same period, migrants of Peruvian origin grew from 5.8% to 8.7% of the foreign-born population, and migrants from other nations in the Americas from 1.9% to 3.8%.

Peruvian Independence Day Celebration in Buenos Aires (Photo: Beatrice Murch)

Simultaneously, the percentage of the foreign-born population of European origin decreased from 28.2% to 16.6%. The proportion of Asian origin also decreased, although less dramatically, from 1.9% to 1.7%.

Finally, while the percentage of the foreign-born population originating from Africa and Oceania remained smaller than 1%, both groups experienced growth; the population of African origin increased by 50%, and that from Oceania nearly doubled.

Argentine Migration Policy

Today, Argentina’s migration policy is codified in Migration Law 25.871, signed into law in 2004 by then-president Nestór Kirchner.

The law has been widely recognised in the international community for its open nature, and particularly for its Article 4, which states: “The right to migrate is essential and inalienable to each individual”.

Pablo Ceriani Cernadas, director of the Human Rights Centre at the Universidad Nacional de Lanús, observes that under this new migration policy, an “irregular” migration status is seen “as a consequence of structural factors and inequalities on the global level” and that therefore the law considers an appropriate response to be “not a restrictive policy but rather to recognise migration as a right, facilitate regularisation, facilitate access to employment and equal rights”.

The Law 25.871 is particularly notable for the law that it replaced, the notorious Law 22.439. Colloquially known today as the ‘Videla Law’ because it was signed into law under in 1981 by then de facto president General Jorge Videla, the law was engineered under the paradigm of national security.

This law constituted a highly restrictive policy that effectively created large groups of undocumented migrants for the first time in Argentina’s history. Mostly affecting migrants from neighbouring countries, the law placed many immigrants in a state of intense vulnerability.

As the law was passed under the military junta, it did not pass through the normal legislative processes. Nevertheless, after the return to democracy in 1983, the Law 22.439 remained in effect.

Despite several large-scale amnesties to regulate the status of large populations of irregular migrants, the migration policies of the 1981 law remained largely in place. Indeed, during the 1989-99 Menem administration the Law 22.439 was applied perhaps even more harshly than it had been during the dictatorship.

Ceriani notes that in the 1990s, with “the appearance and the progressive growth of the social, economic, and political crisis, the increase in unemployment, the increase in poverty, the increase in insecurity, and the overall sensation of insecurity” came the “use of migration as a scapegoat” for a wide variety of social woes.

The passage of the Law 25.871 in 2004, therefore, marked a stark shift.

Louis Bogado Poisson, Academic Secretary at the newly inaugurated Institute of International Migration and Asylum policy, suggests, however, that the law was also in many ways a return to more open migration policies of the past: “Argentina comes from a long tradition of receiving immigrants; its own dynamic, this dynamic of immigrant reception, is what brought it to adopt this policy.”

Under the previous law, detention and deportation figured prominently as responses to undocumented migration. Under the new law, the focus shifted to regularisation, with the use of detention and expulsion extremely restricted.

Immigration office in Buenos Aires (Photo: Beatrice Murch)

Under the previous law, there were few legal avenues for immigration, access to social services was restricted, and neither the protection of migrants’ rights nor the prevention of discrimination was mentioned.

The new law opened more legal avenues for migration, and included two regularisation programmes. One of these programs, known as ‘Patria Grande’, was aimed specifically at regional migrants. In showing a preference for regional migration, the law marks a shift even from earlier open Argentine migration policies.

What’s more, as Bogado-Poisson observes, the law “recognises wide rights; it goes further than any other law”.

Constitutional rights and human rights are extended to all immigrants in the country. Regardless of their legal status, migrants have the right to education, health and social assistance.

Still, Ceriani observes that, there is “not a general acceptance of equality and integration and Argentina as the great receiver of migrants…this work is still a pending challenge…xenophobia is still very present in Argentine society”.

In presenting Decree 616/2010, the ‘reglamentación’ of the Law 25.871 that fleshes out how the law will be implemented, President Christina Fernández de Kirchner stated: “We are all children or grandchildren of an immigrant. We have to echo our own history and the identity of our country. We have to integrate immigrant populations instead of discriminate against them. We must oppose the cultural subordination that dictates laws against immigrants.”

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3 Responses to “The Argentines Descended from the Boats: Migration in Argentina”

  1. Carolina says:

    Glorious nation, in a glorious region that has traditionally embraced what the rest of the world discharged. Indigenous populations, migrants, refugees, built up our beautiful Latin America. May it continue to grow despite the internal challenges, and as the world, particulary in the West, becomes more close.
    I love the cosmopolitan spirit of our region!
    Solidarity, diversity, and empathy.


  1. […] commonly said that Argentines “descended from boats,” which speaks to the country’s history of European migrants from Spain, Germany, […]

  2. […] Buenos Aires as the Paris of South America (e.g. Schneider, A, 2006, p6). It is beyond doubt that European immigration was a driving force in the Argentinian development. Over time a European heritage has been created […]

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