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Historical Developments of Immigration and Emigration

Argentina Introduction Historical Developments Recent Developments The Immigrant Population Argentines Abroad Legal Frameworks of Immigration Citizenship Refuge and Asylum Challenges and Outlook References and Further Reading

Historical Developments of Immigration and Emigration

Thomas Maier

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Arguably, no other country in the New World was transformed by the great cycle of migration of the 19th and 20th centuries as profoundly as Argentina. From roughly 1870 to 1930 approximately six million Europeans arrived in the country importing the notion of a “white” society, still dominant today, despite the fact that currently most immigrants come from the neighboring Latin American countries. European immigrants were actively recruited since they were reputed to be the main drivers of civilization and modernity.

Immigrant's home of primitive construction in rural Argentina. From 1880 to 1930, Argentina became one of the world's ten wealthiest nations as a result of the rapid expansion of agriculture and foreign investment. (© picture alliance / Everett Collection)

Migration During Colonial Times and the Early Republic

In colonial times, the territory of the modern nation state of Argentina had a peripheral position within the Spanish Empire. After the arrival of the Spanish in the area in the early 16th century, the regional economy was mostly shaped by producing goods for the densely populated areas of the Andes, with their profitable explorations of precious metals. Also, the transatlantic slave trade had an impact on the Southern Cone region. Already in 1596, the first African slaves arrived in the region. Slaves usually had to work in urban households or agricultural production and accounted for a significant share of the population in late colonial times. In the country’s first census of 1778, blacks accounted for roughly 7,000 inhabitants of Buenos Aires, out of a total population of 37,000.

At the time of the great transatlantic migrations Argentina and the United States became the major countries of destination in the New World. At a time when the first great wave of migration occurred in the United States from the 1830s onwards, attracted by cheap and accessible farm land, the young Argentine nation (independent since 1816) was deeply embroiled in factional conflicts and civil war because of rivaling ideas about the conception of the new Argentine state. Supporters of a unitary state with Buenos Aires as the state's capital fought against proponents of a decentralized state system. Only after the pacification of the armed conflict could a demographic outlook emerge at government level in order to shape the young nation’s future.

The constitution of 1853 enshrined the protagonistic role that future migrants should play for the country. But the vision of a new society, with the inflow of European settlers as a fundament, was more than just a demographic vision of population growth of a supposedly empty country. Migration should transform the country completely, leading it towards a path of modernity (see Box 1). Aided by the creation of a state supported commission on immigration in 1857 and the support of agents in Europe, a substantial flow of Genovese and Spanish settlers followed.

Immigration as a national doctrine

In Facundo, the canonical literary opus of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, written in 1845, ideas about the future role of the migrant are made explicit in a revealing manner: the immigrant was conceptualized as a transformatory force to change the face of the country in its entirety, altering the quality of the nation itself, towards a path to civilization, against the shadows of backwardness and darkness of the recent past. Together with the doctrine of Gobernar es Poblar ("To govern is to populate"), coined by the Argentine diplomat, constitutionalist and political thinker Juan Bautista Alberti, Facundo stands as the embodiment of the Argentine elite's vision to participate in the project of modernity, and to catch up with developments in Europe and the other young country and new force in the hemisphere, the United States.

But not all immigrants were considered equal. Preference was given to the "advanced" nations of Europe's North, against the perceived backwardness of the continent’s archaic southern people. These hopes of selective immigration were shattered by the autonomy of migratory flows in the decades to come. However, this positive image of migration became dominant within the political class in the country, at least until the outbreak of the global economic depression after 1930.

Nation, territory, and genocide

In order to create the territory for colonization to take place, the young Argentine state had to expand its sovereignty over large areas of the country which had been under the de facto control of indigenous groups for centuries. Employing modern military equipment and techniques, including the use of the railways, the Conquista del Desierto (Conquest of the Desert), directed mainly by General Julio Argentino Roca in the 1870s and 1880s, ended a long phase of fragile frontier relations between indigenous people and the state - at first, colonial and later republican - in the Pampas, Patagonia and the North (Rock, 2002). The expulsion of over 15,000 people and the taking of their land were central in the development of the country’s agricultural sector and therefore the foundation of Argentina’s economic success story well into the 20th century. Whether Argentina’s entry into modern capitalism and statehood rests on a history of genocide is highly contested, and mirrors again developments and debates in the United States (Trinchero, 2006).

The Great Transatlantic Migration

And indeed, European masses were to arrive very soon. After modest inflows of people throughout the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s, the government successfully tried to foster immigration through direct incentives and propaganda abroad, thanks to a favorable economic outlook, the availability of large and fertile land plots, and the active participation of consuls in the targeted countries (see Box 3). The most important instrument to foster immigration was introduced in 1876. The so called Avellaneda Law secured the initiative of migration in the hands of the central government against the previous dominance of the provinces. It allowed for the creation of a powerful Departamento General de Inmigración under the roof of the ministry of the interior. Furthermore, the law granted potential immigrants cost free accommodation after the arrival for six days (at the Hotel de Inmigrantes, opened in 1870), free train passages to the interior, and adjudication of public land.

Attracting immigrants by favorable economic outlooks

Between 1876 and 1915 exports of cattle and agricultural products increased by an average annual rate of four percent, and the railroad network was extended from 2,500 kilometers to almost 34,000 kilometers. This growth was inextricably linked to the international economy, with Argentina being highly integrated into the world market, offering potential immigrants high wages and economic opportunities (Cortés Conde, 2009). Real wages in Argentina were 207.7 percent relative to a weighted average of Italy, Portugal, and Spain in the 1870s and 212.1 percent from 1909 to 1913 (Williamson, 1999). The late 1880s also saw a massive policy of subsidies to attract migration, though with very limited success: the Argentine government granted 134,000 subsidies for European settlers between 1888 and 1891.

Figure 1: Italian and Spanish immigration as a proportion of the total Argentine immigration, 1857-1940 Source: Devoto, Fernando (2009), Historia de la inmigración en la Argentina, 3rd edition, Buenos Aires: Ed. Sudamericana (Colección Historia Argentina). (© bpb)

From 1881 until the First World War approximately 4.2 million people arrived on Argentine shores, with Italians (roughly two million) and Spanish nationals (1.4 million) being the biggest groups, albeit with significant regional diversifications within the countries of origin (see Figure 1). The peak year of 1912 saw the arrival of approximately 300,000 individuals. Other sizable immigrant groups before the First World War were German, French, English and other groups from the British Empire. This makes Argentina the second most important receiving country in the New World in times of peak Atlantic migration, after the United States. But migration never meant a one way street, and often took the shape of a circular process: between 1881 and 1910, roughly 36 percent of the newly arrived decided to return to their country of origin. The Argentine "birds of passage" - the golondrinas (swallows) - became a mass phenomenon. Taking advantage of the different cycles of harvests, thousands of (mostly Italian) rural workers moved regularly between the continents (see Figure 2).

Although the project of modernization, so wholeheartedly embraced by the country's elite, demanded the inflow of millions of individuals, the effects of immigration also triggered fears and over time revealed a more ambiguous public opinion. Especially sanitary provisions caused anxieties not only in Argentina but in all major receiving countries of the times. The first groups of immigrants that were perceived as a seriously troubling presence and as difficult to integrate, were immigrants from the Ottoman Empire, generically called turcos, and Jews, mostly coming from Russia. Their number reached between 10,000 and 20,000 annually in the first decade of the 20th century. However, there were virtually no legal restrictions on immigration in place until the 1920s.

The national census of 1914 provides an intriguing picture of the profound impact that migration had on the Argentine economy, society and culture. The reality of immigration dramatically changed the demographic profile of the country. Within 20 years, the country's population had almost doubled to about 7.9 million. More than one third of the inhabitants were foreign-born, compared to 30 percent in the US, five percent in Brazil, and 24 percent in Canada, with only Uruguay showing a greater number among Western Hemisphere nations (35 percent). In the capital Buenos Aires, this figure was around 50 percent, higher than in any North American city.

Debates on Integration

In order to create a sense of national belonging and identification with the new nation, the state largely relied upon three techniques, mirroring examples from Europe and the US: mandatory military service, incremental political integration via voting rights and public participation; and most importantly, patriotic education and schooling. The pedagogical doctrine was largely inspired by the example of the secular French Third Republic. The outcome of this project of integration proved to be hugely successful and long lasting. When, in the early 1960s, the sociologist Gino Germani attempted the first systematic study of immigration in Argentina, he could persuasively argue that the project of integration had been successful in creating a modern society without major fissures and conflicts along ethnic lines. The loss of the mother tongue and often a critical approach to further immigration characterized many second- and third-generation individuals already by the 1920s. In this respect, Argentina showed very similar patterns to other European settler territories: as an example, the Yiddish language, which had survived for centuries as an ethnic minority language in Central and Eastern Europe, virtually disappeared within three generations in Argentina, as in the United States, Brazil, and Uruguay.

After World War I to the 1950s - a New Intellectual Climate and the End of Mass Immigration

Figure 2: Spanish and Italian immigration and returnees, 1861-1920 Source: Devoto, Fernando (2009), Historia de la inmigración en la Argentina, 3rd edition, Buenos Aires: Ed. Sudamericana (Colección Historia Argentina). (© bpb)

Confronted with plummeting numbers of incomers leading to net-emigration rates from 1915 to 1917, the outbreak of the First World War was a painful reminder that Argentina’s project of modernity was based on shaky grounds, profoundly vulnerable to the conjunctures of world politics and economic cycles.

In the aftermath of the Great War, however, the country witnessed a resurgence of major flows of immigration. Argentina even increased its share of European migration in comparison to its major competitors in the New World, partly due to the restrictive immigration policies in the United States, reaching a new total peak of approximately 200,000 immigrants in 1923. The crumbling empires of Central and Eastern Europe - Ottoman, Habsburg and Russian - and their succession states in the new political order of Versailles particularly increased their shares in the total numbers.

The shock of World War I would serve as a sign of things to come. As in many other countries in the New World, the outbreak of the world economic crisis in 1929 brought the inflow of people to a virtual halt. Rising unemployment, and the fall of relative wages made the voyage to La Plata unattractive for potential migrants. Additionally, the intellectual climate of the 1930s changed significantly. Nationalist ideas challenged successfully the liberal paradigm of open borders, and rising xenophobia and anti-Semitism had its impact on attitudes towards certain groups of immigrants. The military government that seized power in 1930 introduced new restrictions the same year and again in 1938, but the economic conjuncture had a far more significant impact on the virtual cessation of immigration.

The 1930s also witnessed the emergence of a new phenomenon of forced migration: the refugee. The pressure of war and persecution, first during the Spanish Civil war, and later through the rise of extreme right totalitarianisms and the Second World War, was met with a tightening of the border regime. The anti-Semitism and anticommunism of the Argentine elite played an important part in this process. Although the Argentine state tried to clamp down on illegal border crossings, thousands, mostly Jews were able to enter the country. Alternative routes, taking advantage of insufficient controls of the Argentine border, using third countries, or finally, bribing officials to secure passage, often proved lifesaving.

The last major attempt to attract a significant number of European immigrants occurred during the presidency of Juan Domingo Perón from 1946 to 1955. In the First Five Year Plan from 1947, a document that combined a broad ideological vision and detailed policy prescriptions, the Peronist government expressed the desire to bring in an additional four million immigrants for agricultural colonization. Moreover, Perón further encouraged internal migration from the provinces in the interior to the major cities to foster the prospect of an industrialized Argentina. Importantly, Peronism envisioned migrant workers from the interior, often of darker skin color, as an integral part of the national community. At the same time Peronism perpetuated the myth of a homogeneously white Argentina by emphasizing the integration of internal and international migrants into the crisol de razas (melting pot) of Argentina. But as with previous attempts to shape migration in Argentine history, the ambitious state was not able to realize its pretentious plans. Although the late 1940s and early 1950s saw another surge in numbers of incomers, the same years also witnessed a very high rate of people returning to their countries of origin (1949: 148,372 newcomers vs. 133,019 returnees). In the 1950s, many individuals who originally

Argentina's "Melting Pot" theory

Significantly influenced by the debates in the US, the Argentine discussion on how to conceptualize the country’s experience of integrating a nation made up of immigrants had been dominated by the idea of the crisol de razas, the La Plata equivalent to the "Melting Pot" theory. Only more recently did dynamic, heterogeneous ideas and concepts gain ground, highlighting features and structures of social plurality and cultural diversity. Objects of studies to work on these concepts were mostly patterns of political participation, dynamics of marriage and the marketplace, and patterns of residency in the city and the country side (Devoto, 2009).

This text is part of the Interner Link: country profile Argentina.



  1. Martínez Shaw (1994).

  2. Andrews (1980).

  3. Castro (1991).

  4. Devoto (2009).

  5. Williamson/Hatton (1994).

  6. Nugent (1995).

  7. Rein (2010).

  8. Nugent (1995).

  9. Biernat (2007).


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Thomas Maier is currently researching his PhD at the Institute of the Americas, University College London. His main focus of research is the history of labor and the welfare state in the Americas, particularly Argentina and the Southern Cone. Email: E-Mail Link: