The government is telling the estimated 1 million illegal immigrants in Argentina that they can become citizens simply by owning up and filling out the proper forms.
"The policy of this government . . . aims at integration, not expulsion," said Teodoro Funes, undersecretary for institutional affairs in the Interior Ministry.
"We can't take our Latin American brothers to the border and expel them," he added. "What we're looking to do is regularize the situation."
Unofficial estimates citing government, business and community sources say the illegals include 340,000 Paraguayans, 300,000 Uruguayans, 250,000 Chileans and large groups of Bolivians, South Koreans and Taiwanese. Argentina's population is about 33 million.
Interior Minister Julio Mera Figueroa caused a furor in July by saying the government might expel illegal residents.
The government backed off when neighboring countries complained, but the issuing of visas to Asian immigrants was suspended. South Koreans and others were said to be using Argentina as a way station to the United States and Canada.
"What happens is, the majority of Asian immigrants don't want to stay in Argentina," an immigration official said, on condition of anonymity. "They want our passports so they can try to enter the United States, Canada and other countries more easily."
Diplomats at the South Korean and U.S. consulates declined comment.
Carlos Martinez, director of the National Bureau of Immigration, said the government is not sure how many illegal aliens live in Argentina.
"Unlike other countries that demand that tourists have proof of economic resources and return travel tickets, Argentina automatically grants permission for residence up to 30 days to whoever asks for a visa," he said. "After the fact, it is very difficult to verify whether these people left or stayed."
More than 150,000 illegal aliens became citizens six years ago under a special arrangement. Most of them were from Brazil and other neighboring countries. A similar program was conducted in 1974.
Argentina has been a traditional refuge for people fleeing poverty and political repression.
Thousands of Chileans and Uruguayans entered Argentina after military coups in their countries in 1973. Bolivians and Paraguayans seek jobs in Argentina they cannot find at home.
Citizenship requirements are simple in Argentina, the world's eighth-largest country in area and relatively underpopulated. Anyone who can prove he has lived here for two years may apply for a national identity card and passport. There is no quota.
Many illegal immigrants lack such necessary documents as birth certificates, marriage licenses or police certifications of good conduct and cannot afford to obtain them, Martinez said.
He said the documents are available for $20 each through the appropriate consulate, but that could mean several hundred dollars for a large family.
About 300,000 illegal immigrants began the citizenship application process but dropped out, most of them for lack of money.