Milei’s Presidential Election and Migration Governance: Three Scenarios for Argentina and South America
Javier Milei, a self-described anarcho-capitalist libertarian, became Argentina's new President on December 10th. Although migration was not a central issue during the election campaign, his victory has raised concerns about the future of migration governance in Argentina and South America.
For the past 20 years, Argentina has played a leading role in regional migration policy, with its 2004 migration law exerting significant influence on other laws in South and Latin America. Moreover, Argentina proposed in 2002 the adoption of the MERCOSUR Residence Agreements, which have established a framework for free mobility, allowing South American nationals to enter, reside and work in other countries in the region. The Agreements have been ratified by eight countries in the region besides Argentina: Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay.
Based on Milei’s electoral program and declarations by leading party members, we anticipate three possible tendencies for his government agenda over the next four years.
Migration Selectivity: Following his libertarian ideas, Milei’s main tenet centres around minimising the role of the State. He believes open borders and migration can benefit the economy if they follow the free market rules. In his opinion, the welfare state is a magnet that attracts “undesirable” and “unnecessary” migrants. Therefore, eliminating the welfare state and public services would result in a self-selection of migrants, attracting only those who “come to Argentina to work.” His program also proposes to attract specialists whose knowledge is essential to the Argentine economy, similar to other countries’ efforts to attract the "best and brightest".
The approach being proposed has two major inconsistencies that need to be addressed. Firstly, it is important to clarify how the government plans to attract highly skilled workers, especially given the current economic situation in Argentina. The crisis has led to a significant reduction in professionals' salaries and is causing the emigration of thousands of Argentineans. Estimates show that, between September 2020 and April 2022, more than 300.000 Argentines emigrated, the vast majority of whom, young professionals. Brazil and Chile are two of the top three countries of destination for these emigrants. Second, it is worth noting that in Argentina, the percentage of employed immigrants is higher than that of native citizens. In other words, migrants already come to Argentina to work. However, due to the country's poor economic performance over the last two decades, the immigration rate has remained stagnant. While Argentina is still one of the main receiving countries in the South American context in relative terms, according to the 2022 National Census, migrants made up only 4.2% of the population, down from 4.5% in the 2010 census. Between 1870 and 1930, Argentina was the second most popular destination for migration worldwide, right after the United States. However, things have changed drastically since then. Currently, Argentina only ranks eighth globally in terms of hosting Venezuelans, even though Venezuela's displacement of about 8 million people since 2015 represents the largest in South America's history. As sociologist Hein de Haas has argued, the only way to reduce immigration is to wreck the economy. Argentina represents a paradigmatic confirmation of this.
Migration securitisation: In line with part of the political discourse in Europe and in the USA and influenced by the PRO/Juntos por el Cambio (centre-right) political allies, some proposals aim to expedite the expulsion of those non-nationals committing crimes. This raises two distinct issues. Firstly, there are already many provisions in place that deal with expulsion. Like in Europe, these provisions should conform to international human rights instruments ratified by the state. The American Convention on Human Rights is particularly relevant in this case. Secondly, available data doesn't indicate that Argentina faces an urgent challenge in this area. For example, in the Buenos Aires province, which has over 16 million residents and is the largest in the country, the imprisoned foreign-born population has remained stable at around 5% of the total for the last 20 years.
Nationalisation/deglobalisation: Milei has proposed Argentina's withdrawal from international organisations and forums such as the BRICS, and will probably prevent Argentina from rejoining UNASUR. He has also promised to dismantle the Common Market of the South (MERCOSUR). This is the key regional organisation in South America and has been in place since 1991. Every country in the region is either a full or associate member.
If such a proposal were to come to fruition, Argentina would face two significant challenges. Firstly, MERCOSUR has been a crucial aspect of Argentina's foreign policy for over three decades, providing stability to the region and a platform for Argentina to voice its ideas, interests, and demands on the international and regional levels. Leaving the organisation would, therefore, weaken Argentina's ability to address shared regional and global challenges, isolating the country from the rest of the region and the world. Second, this could affect the functioning of the MERCOSUR Residence agreements mentioned earlier. It is worth noting that almost 90% of migrants in Argentina originate from South America. Conversely, 6 out of the top 10 destinations for Argentinians are in South America. Breaking up the existing regional migration regime could seriously complicate the governance of human mobility in the entire region, affecting access to rights for all South American nationals, including Argentinians.
How effectively these policy proposals will be implemented remains to be seen. Opposition parties control the National Congress, and none of the provincial governors belong to Milei's party. Most people who voted for Milei did so because they were dissatisfied with the previous government and the current economic situation. Therefore, it would be a mistake for Milei to interpret his election as a complete endorsement of all his policy proposals.
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