Anti-immigration rhetoric spreads across Latin America

Anti-immigration rhetoric spreads across Latin America

Bolivian vendor at Andino Market in Buenos Aires (Argentina). For some migrants, the main concern of the new regulation on migration is the decree’s impact in terms of the stigmatisation of certain communities.

(Lucía He)

On 27 January 2017, the president of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, passed a “Necessity and Urgency Decree” (DNU) to amend the country’s immigration law. The reforms ordered by Macri include a speeding up of the deportation process for foreigners committing offences, and the withdrawal of residency from foreigners committing certain crimes. According to the government, the measures are an important step forward in the fight against insecurity in Argentina.

“The system will work as follows: no one with a criminal record will be allowed in. And any foreign person committing an offence in Argentina will be summarily deported,” explained Security Minister Patricia Bullrich. “Our country’s concern is the concentration of foreigners who have committed drug trafficking crimes, and that is where we want to take aim.”

Human rights organisations in the country have, however, expressed concern over the how the decree, passed as an executive order without requiring a debate in Congress, will affect immigrant communities in Argentina.

From “exemplary legislation” to a police state

“The legislation we used to have was not without its flaws and certain aspects of it needed to be revised, but it served as a model for the region, being one of the first to establish the right to migrate as a human right,” says Lucía Galoppo, a lawyer with the Argentinian Commission for Refugees and Migrants. “But with the new decree, the state ends up being yet another police state. The spirit of the law has been lost.”

The original immigration law provided migrants issued with notice of deportation with a period of thirty days to present a defence and to have the measure reviewed. Under the executive order signed by Macri, this period has been reduced to three days.

“No one can prepare an effective defence in three days. Moreover, a lawyer is required to present the request for a review. That is practically impossible within three days,” says Galoppo.

Prior to its amendment, the law established strict measures for crimes such as drug trafficking, but these have now been expanded to include migrants having to serve any type of custodial sentence, regardless of the prison term. This change could have major implications for some migrants.

“All migrants can be deported for any type of problem with the law. Before, the law spoke of sentences in excess of three years, but now it’s any type of offence, such as shoplifting three apples, for example,” says Galoppo. “An Argentinian national would receive a one-month sentence, and wouldn’t even go to jail, but a migrant would be deported.”

Over and above the legislative reform’s potential impact on migrants committing minor offences, for some, the main concern is the decree’s impact in terms of the stigmatisation of certain communities.

“That’s for criminals, not for us who work,” says Grover Flores, who emigrated from Bolivia to Argentina over a decade ago. “But what does worry us are the comments coming from the government saying that only Bolivians or Paraguayans commit crimes. There are people who think that I’m involved in drug trafficking because I’m Bolivian.”

In a communiqué signed by over 150 organisations, immigrant and human rights organisations expressed their concerns: “Our concern is that the proposed reforms associate migration with crime, creating a false problem that shifts the focus away from a real debate on how to address the issues of insecurity and violence in a globalised world.”

“Paraguayan citizens come here and end up killing each other to take control of the drug trade; the Bolivians, not so much,” said Minister Bullrich on defending the decree. “What’s more, many Paraguayan, Bolivian and Peruvian citizens get involved as drivers, mules, links in the drug trafficking chain. It is an issue we have to work on.”

This type of discourse is not unique to Bullrich. Some days after the decree was announced, Alfredo Olmedo, a legislator from the northern province of Salta, said the government should order a wall to be built along the border with Bolivia.

“I know the border, I know it very well. A wall needs to be built,” said Olmedo during a TV interview. “If criminals come in from Colombia, Paraguay or wherever, they’ll have to go back home, because on top of everything we have to pay to keep them in jail.”

For migrants’ rights defenders, the main fear is a proliferation of this type of discourse among the public in general.

“The decree stirs feelings of antagonism and apprehension towards unwanted migration in Argentina, towards immigrants from bordering countries that have a long history of not being well integrated,” says Wanda Perozzo of AMUMRA (United Women, Migrants and Refugees Association of Argentina). “There is an undercurrent of stigmatisation, a narrative that criminalises migration.”

According to an opinion poll conducted by the consultancy Poliarquía, 88 per cent of the population is in agreement with the “express procedure” to deport foreigners, and 83 per cent agree with prohibiting the entry of foreigners with a criminal record.

Migrants make up 4.8 per cent of the population in Argentina. According to a report by the Justice Ministry in Argentina, 94 per cent of the prison population is Argentinian, and only five per cent is from bordering countries. A total of 1,426 foreigners are in prison for drug related offences, which corresponds to 0.06 per cent of the foreign population in the country.

The “Trump effect”, a regional trend?

In Chile, although no concrete measures have been taken like in Argentina, a similar anti-immigrant discourse is emerging. On 15 January 2017, hundreds of people took part in a march in the capital city of Santiago de Chile in favour of migrants’ rights and in opposition to various proposals from political circles associating migration with crime and other social problems.

One of these proposals came from the former Chilean president Sebastián Piñera, who is a presidential candidate for this year’s elections.

“The important thing is that as Chileans we have to be absolutely clear that it is naive and stupid to have an immigration policy that ends up importing ills such as delinquency, drug trafficking and organised crime,” said Piñera.

Manuel José Ossandon, a senator and presidential candidate, expressed similar ideas: “We need to have a very tough policy on the criminals that are coming here. We have to deport them immediately.”

According to an opinion poll by the Cadem research centre, 75 per cent of Chileans believe the government should adopt stricter migration policies, and 45 per cent consider migration to be negative for the county.

“It’s not that people have had a change of mind. There have always been anti-immigration positions in a variety of circles. But since the US election, these people have been spurred on by the effectiveness of such rhetoric and they think it can work here too,” says Rodolfo Noriega, head of the National Committee of Immigrants in Chile.

In Argentina, Perozzo shares his view: “I think the immigration reforms in Argentina are part of a global reconfiguration, a political and economic reconfiguration with an updating of nationalist and chauvinistic rhetoric and discourse that places borders and barriers in the way of consolidating democratic societies.”

Migrants’ rights defenders remain optimistic, in spite of these trends.

“Human mobility is something the whole world needs to recognise. It is a movement that cannot be contained even by the Mediterranean Sea,” says Noriega. “What we as the immigrant community have to learn is to seek alliances within the various countries, and to put those alliances to good use. That is the key to overcoming anti-immigration sentiments.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.