President Mauricio Macri’s emergency decree to speed up deportations and bar entry for immigrants with criminal charges or convictions has sparked a national debate in Argentina. Human rights groups say immigrants who have committed even minor offenses will lose the ability to defend themselves and keep their families together, but proponents say the changes are necessary to prevent crime and to rid the nation of foreign narcotics traffickers, arms dealers and money launderers.
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — In the Plaza del Congreso, flags were flying: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay were all represented, as was the flag of the native peoples of Latin America. Signs were hoisted, too. “We’re not criminals!” read one.
The protesters came to oppose an emergency deportation decree put in place by the son of an immigrant himself, President Mauricio Macri. They gathered in front of the congressional building on March 30 to ask for the repeal of Macri’s decree amending Argentina’s immigration law, Ley de Migraciones, to fast-track deportations of foreigners charged with, or who have a record of, any offense that could carry a jail or prison sentence.
Macri’s Jan. 27 decree stated that changes were immediately necessary to safeguard the nation from narcotics traffickers, arms dealers and money launderers. It was issued two days after a similar executive order in the United States, which also cited security concerns. Both orders pointed to immigrants with criminal records, or those with pending charges, as potential threats to national security; both aimed to quicken deportations and to bar entry.
CITIZEN’S REACT: Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s emergency order that increases the administration’s ability to quickly deport immigrants with criminal records aims to fight and prevent crime. Civil rights groups and others say the order grants the government vast powers that can be used to discriminate against law-abiding immigrants. GPJ spoke to a variety of people in Buenos Aires, including protesters at a March rally, about the changes.
The Macri administration justified the measure by saying that the number of foreigners in the custody of the Servicio Penitenciario Federal, Argentina’s federal prison system, had risen in recent years. Foreigners made up more than 21 percent of the total prison population in 2016, according to the decree. It also states that 33 percent of those in custody for narcotics-related crimes were immigrants.
But human rights organizations disputed those statistics during a March 20 hearing conducted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Human rights organization Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales found that when all prisoners are counted, including those in municipal and rural jails, the number of incarcerated foreigners has remained stable at about 6 percent for more than 10 years.
Human rights organizations say deportation provisions under the decree are so broad that even those accused of minor crimes — such as street vending, traffic violations or charges of contempt for authorities — would be deported or restricted from entering the country.
Such changes to the law violate the right to legal defense and family unification by reducing the time immigrants have to submit documentation and evidence to prove their innocence, says attorney Paola García Rey, a director of human rights at Amensty International’s Argentina office.
The U.N. Committee Against Torture agrees. On May 12, the committee, which monitors how nations implement provisions in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, urged the government to repeal or amend the regulations in Macri’s decree to ensure that people subject to expulsion will have enough time to appeal and to receive free legal support during deportation proceedings.
García Rey says the changes also make immigrants more vulnerable to their employers and may serve as a threat to reduce labor rights and extend working hours.
“This decree has very real consequences in everyday life,” García Rey says. “The possibilities of an employer threatening to report an immigrant that works for him or her over a minor offense makes the rights and protections of immigrants very much restrained.”
A debate has broken out on the issue. While some fear that the measure indicates that Argentina is no longer a welcoming place for immigrants, others say the changes can be a good way to combat crime in Argentina. A poll by Poliarquía Consultores, a private opinion firm, soon after the measure was announced found 83 percent of 1,381 polled indicated that they were in favor of prohibiting entry into the country of those with criminal records. Most in the survey also agreed with creating an express provision to expel immigrants who commit crimes.
José Santos Sota, who sells newspapers at a magazine stand and who is married to an immigrant from Uruguay, thinks the government should do more to secure the country. “It’s good that the law is stricter, but they also should strengthen control over customs, scan and verify the information about all of the people who come into the country to make sure they’re not entering on false documents.”
Meanwhile Amankay Villanueva, a 21-year-old Argentine who attended the protest wearing traditional clothes from her parents’ native country of Bolivia, compares the Argentine decree with U.S. President Donald Trump’s push to build a wall along the border with Mexico. She thinks both are the result of the same neoliberal, xenophobic thought.
Argentina’s current government, she says, “has the same goal as Trump, to criminalize and stigmatize all the immigrant population … those with Indian faces, the black ones, the ones who supposedly come to steal jobs.”
Argentine government officials highlighted immigration data to show that they are not seeking to close borders.
“We are very open,” Horacio García, director of the Dirección Nacional de Migraciones, Argentina’s immigration department, said in a press release. He noted that in 2016 Argentina granted 215,000 immigrants permission to live in the country, which he says was more than any other Latin American country. Another 52,000 were accepted so far this year, he said.
“In a year and three months, this government resettled more than a quarter-million people. This is a figure that we have to show the world. For that very reason, we don’t have to have an itching to speak about a minority that comes with other interests of not doing things right in Argentina,” García says.
Human rights advocate García Rey, however, says that besides restricting immigrant rights, the decree will negatively affect the country’s bilateral relations with its neighbors by associating Bolivian, Paraguayan, Peruvian and Colombian communities with drug trafficking and crime.
“The amendment of the law is linked to Trump’s policy, as both seek to restrict the entry of specific nationalities. It’s not a new policy for the United States, but it is for Argentina,” she says. “They are clearly aligned.”
Amnesty International and Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales seek to stop the decree from being enforced, but their actions are limited. All emergency decrees must pass through a bicameral congressional commission composed of eight deputies and eight senators who together determine whether the decree conforms with law, then submit it to both chambers for consideration. Since the commission has not yet expressed itself on the decree, it is in effect until the commission acts.
Gabriela Kletzel, coordinator of the international working group for Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, says the changes are especially concerning because Argentina’s immigration legislation has been lauded for considering immigration a basic human right, allowing free access to health care and education for immigrants.
“Argentina was at the vanguard with its former migratory legislation. It is a shame to see that the former standard, which counteracted the logic in many other countries linking immigration and crime, will be left useless because of an emergency decree,” she says.
Lourdes Medrano, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.