It was always easy for "false tourists" from neighboring nations to come here as if on a holiday, then stay to work and even settle permanently. Hundreds of thousands of Paraguayans, Bolivians, Chileans and Uruguayans have made that journey.
In an amnesty for illegal immigrants that ended early this year, 230,000 of them won the right to stay legally. And thousands more keep coming every month.
Just as the United States is North America's magnet for illegal immigrants, Argentina is the South American hot spot for falsos turistas. But now, although they still don't face as many hurdles as do undocumented workers in the United States, false tourists are having a harder time in Argentina.
With record unemployment of 10% in Argentina, undocumented workers have become increasingly controversial, and authorities have been under pressure to crack down.
Isaac Riveno, who came as a false tourist three years ago, ended up on the outskirts of Buenos Aires in a slum of dirt streets and ramshackle houses called Esperanza, which means hope . He found a job in a factory that makes brass fittings and settled his wife and three children in a tiny brick house with two rooms that he bought for $650, a little more than his monthly wage.
Riveno, 25, started his legalization process under the recent amnesty. But he is having trouble getting through all the red tape required for an Argentine resident's card, which his factory boss wants to see. The boss is under pressure from tax inspectors to provide documentation for all workers.
"He didn't say he would fire me, but he was in a fix and needed the document," Riveno said.
Riveno and his boss are feeling the pinch as Argentina grapples with illegal immigration. It isn't exactly a full-scale crackdown. But with new measures, authorities intend not only to make it more difficult for undocumented workers to cross the border but also to reduce their incentive to do so.
The main lure is jobs, so that is the primary area where the government is tightening the screws. Aldo Carreras, secretary for population and community relations in the Interior Ministry, said the government's objective is to eliminate a "labor black market."
Tax inspectors have begun asking companies to show a resident identification number, or at least a preliminary registration certificate for foreigners, for each person on their payrolls. Revenue agents will now do double duty, Carreras said in an interview, noting, "They are also going to be immigration inspectors."
Because of the new measures, employers are growing reluctant to offer jobs to undocumented workers, Carreras said. He predicted that their reluctance will increase when Congress passes a bill that authorizes the government to fine employers $5,000 for each undocumented worker they employ. The bill has been approved by the lower house and is expected to win Senate approval soon.
Jorge Gurrieri, national director of immigration, said his service is implementing new checks to detect false tourists coming across Argentina's northern border with Bolivia and Paraguay. Immigration officers, for example, have begun asking to see tourists' round-trip tickets, the money they will spend during their stay and proof of their employment in their home countries. Still, he said, "it's difficult to think of a strict control at the border."
Since the 1950s, Argentina and its neighbors have agreed that their citizens may cross the borders with no passport or visa, only a national identification card. To reverse that policy now, when Argentina is promoting economic integration with its neighbors, would be disruptive, Gurrieri said.
And even if national policy called for a wide-scale crackdown, Gurrieri and other experts agree that migrants would find ways to get in.
A major difference between U.S. and Argentine policy toward illegal immigrants is that Argentina rarely deports undocumented foreigners unless they are involved in illicit activities.
Illegal immigrants who have job contracts are eligible to apply for permanent residence; between 10,000 and 30,000 people a year receive resident status that way. Such applications, plus two amnesties, have given legal status to about 600,000 undocumented workers since 1980, the immigration service says.
A new regulation prohibits employers from putting an undocumented immigrant to work before he or she has begun the legalization process and received a registration certificate, which can take weeks or months. And with today's high unemployment, fewer companies are willing to offer a contract to someone who can't work immediately, Gurrieri said.
Manuel Farina, a lay leader in a Paraguayan Roman Catholic mission that works with immigrants in Argentina, said such regulations are a subtle way to squeeze out undocumented workers. "It's a game they are playing to repress, to restrict, in an elegant way," he said. "It appears as if there is an open-door policy, but it is hard to get in through that door."
In his office on a shady street, Farina introduced Norma Fretes, a young Paraguayan who came to Argentina as a false tourist and found a job as a domestic. After she asked the woman who hired her for a work contract, Fretes was fired.
"She scolded me and put me out on the street," Fretes said. Farina noted, "The patrona doesn't want to get into this mess of making a contract with an illegal."
He estimated that there are 800,000 Paraguayans living in Argentina, half illegally. Estimates of the total number of illegal immigrants in Argentina range from 400,000 to more than 1 million.
In this nation of 33 million people, illegal immigration has rarely reached such proportions that it has burdened services such as public health care and education.
While children, theoretically, must possess an Argentine ID card to enroll in public schools, administrators usually overlook the requirement, "understanding that all children have a right to education," Gurrieri said. "If they don't let them in the school, they are going to be on the street."
Ramon Diaz Pereira, the diplomat in charge of the Paraguayan Embassy in Buenos Aires, said illegal immigrants have full access to Argentine social services. "We have not had complaints of discrimination against our citizens, even the illegal ones," he said.
Bolivian Ambassador Luis Lema said Argentina "has been generous in the case of undocumented people, with social services such as health. I don't know of any discrimination for getting into schools."
Argentina is a nation of immigrants. In the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, great waves of people from Italy and Spain surged into the country and helped make it the most prosperous in South America. In recent decades, most immigrants have come from neighboring countries. Many have moved here to escape harsh military regimes, but most have come for low-skill jobs in agriculture, services, industry and construction.
In Argentina today, a domestic can earn $600 a month, compared with as little as $50 a month for farm or domestic labor in Paraguay and Bolivia, two of the poorest countries in South America--and the two that send the most false tourists to Argentina.
Until recently, immigrants were welcome because most of them filled jobs that Argentines disdained. But high unemployment has forced many Argentines to lower their sights.
"People are willing to accept work in any conditions," said Silvia Montoya, an official with a group that helps immigrants. Suddenly, undocumented immigrants are competing with Argentines, Montoya said. "And suddenly, there is opposition to them by all these unions."
Lelio Marmora, chief of the International Organization for Migration in Buenos Aires, disagreed. He insisted that Argentines still generally reject low-paying or short-term jobs illegal workers get and that foreigners are being used as scapegoats.
He said trying to keep illegal immigrants out is futile if they can't make a decent living at home. "The more repression there is with illegal immigration, the more illegality there is," he said.
The only solution, Marmora said, is economic development that will raise wages in neighboring countries. Argentina's policy of seeking free trade and economic integration with its neighbors is on the right track because it will tend to equalize labor conditions, he said.
Meanwhile, said Alfredo Agulleiro, secretary of social promotion for Buenos Aires, illegal immigrants are swelling slums in the metropolitan area. Many join takeovers of vacant land and buildings, and increasing numbers are occupying sidewalks as street vendors.
Agulleiro's solution? His department helps poor immigrant families find housing and social services. It even assists them with the paperwork to become legal residents. "There are social workers to do that exclusively," he said. "It isn't like the United States. Things are open here."