- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 18, 2002

BUENOS AIRES In the midst of Argentina's economic collapse, its people are leaving by the thousands for Italy, Spain and Israel. Not everyone, however, is packing.

Evelyn Rodriguez, a Bolivian immigrant who moved to Buenos Aires with her family 18 years ago, isn't going anywhere.

"I remember how I suffered coming here. Am I going to go through all that and start from scratch again? No way," said Mrs. Rodriguez, standing in the gated patio of her cement and corrugated sheet-metal house.

She is one of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru who have come to Argentina in recent years, drawn by a once-plentiful job market to the second-largest economy in South America. As the crisis here has grown in recent months, many are returning to their native countries.

But experts expect most of the immigrants will stay in Argentina, despite deteriorating economic conditions, tougher laws and increasing racially tinged discrimination.

"I don't understand why so many Argentines are leaving," said Mrs. Rodriguez, a small woman wearing a blue sweatshirt and warm-up pants. "If they stuck it out here instead of leaving, we might be able to get out of this crisis."

In 1984, Mrs. Rodriguez and her husband, a certified mechanic, sold their house and two other pieces of property in the mountain city of Oruro, Bolivia.

After a cross-continent bus ride, the couple and their three daughters landed in Villa Lugano, a residential neighborhood in southern Buenos Aires.

Nearly 90 years ago, Lugano was founded by working-class immigrants from Italy, Spain and Armenia. Now, just blocks from the pizzerias, cafes and a tango bar in Lugano's older downtown, a ghetto teems with a new generation of immigrants from Bolivia and Paraguay.

Bolivian folk songs, with their lilting melodies and airy flute, breeze out of open windows, blending with the torrid rhythms of cumbia, the dance music popular among the poor throughout Latin America. Andean Indian women speaking Quechua to each other carry children wrapped in hand-woven blue cloths on their backs.

On Saturdays, streets are filled with market stalls stacked with Bolivian and Paraguayan staples: manioc, small purple potatoes, orange and green chili peppers and bags of quinoa, a grain common in the Andes. On the sidewalks, old men sitting on stools under red umbrellas replace the soles of worn-out shoes for a few pesos.

While many immigrants have managed to preserve their cuisine and culture, few have escaped poverty. Lugano is one of the hundreds of "villas miseria" ("cities of misery"), many of them immigrant communities that have come to typify the landscape of outer Buenos Aires in recent years.

Rutted, dirt streets and crooked alleys cut through wall-to-wall houses made of cement, brick and corrugated zinc. Next to a car junkyard bordering a freeway, rotting garbage floats in pools of stagnant water. The doors to most buildings are barricaded with locked metal grates.

"When I got here, I saw cardboard and sheet-metal shacks and dead dogs thrown about on the street, and I asked myself: This is Argentina?" said Mrs. Rodriguez, who had heard tales of wealth in Buenos Aires when she lived in Bolivia.

With traditionally low unemployment and a relatively stable economy, Argentina has become a magnet for immigrants from nearby South American countries mainly Paraguay, Bolivia, Chile and, in recent years, Peru.

Immigrants from these countries need only a national identification card or a passport to enter Argentina. Once in the country, they typically find low-paying jobs working long hours in construction, agriculture, factories and domestic housework. Like millions of Argentines working in the informal economy, most are paid under the table.

Few immigrants from nearby countries are working or living in Argentina legally, making estimates of their numbers uncertain.

The last government census, conducted in 1991, puts the number of immigrants from neighboring countries at 840,000 a gross underestimate, experts say.

What is certain is that the number of foreigners living in this country of 37 million people ballooned in the 1990s, when the Argentine peso was worth one U.S. dollar. Immigrants poured across the border attracted by salaries often several times higher than those in their own countries, landing everywhere from Argentine border towns to Buenos Aires.

The influx mirrored the arrival of European immigrants a century ago, although it was smaller. Then, seeking to populate Argentina's vast, uninhabited interior with white Europeans, the government opened its doors to immigrants. Millions came, mostly from Italy and Spain, and by 1914, 30 percent of the population was foreign-born.

The more recent immigration from other South American countries has not been so warmly received.

While many Argentines boast of their white forefathers' immigration from Europe, few express satisfaction about the more recent arrival of darker-skinned, Amerindian immigrants from Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru. Immigrant communities tend to be sharply segregated, and discrimination is common along racial lines.

"When Argentines say this is a country of immigrants, they aren't talking about us," said Ramona Alvarez Fleitas, who at the age of 8 traveled to Buenos Aires barefoot with her mother from Paraguay. She runs an organization that helps Paraguayan immigrants.

"Many Argentines have Paraguayan relatives, but they won't admit it, although they'll tell you their grandmother was from Spain or Italy," said Mrs. Alvarez Fleitas. "Even some Paraguayans have a hard time saying they're Paraguayan here."

A recent poll that rated the perception Argentines have of other countries on a scale of 1 to 100 gave Italy the highest ranking at 70 points. Bolivia was at the bottom with 18.

This and similar polls indicate a rising anti-immigration sentiment in Argentina, where the unemployment rate has more than tripled in 10 years. President Eduardo Duhalde, in office since December after looting and protests forced two presidents to resign in as many weeks, has not wasted time capitalizing on the change in public opinion.

His administration is drafting a bill that would stiffen the penalties for employers of undocumented workers and would make it easier for border and airport authorities to reject would-be immigrants.

"This country has great respect for immigrants, but we can't have illegals here, because they represent a disadvantage for Argentine workers," said Interior Undersecretary Cristian Ritondo.

According to government statistics, however, immigration has a marginal affect on the job opportunities available to Argentines. Immigrant workers affect the national unemployment rate by at most 1.5 percent, said Adriana Alfonso, an official with the Department of Immigration.

With the prospects of finding work and saving money in Argentina dimmed by the economic crash, many immigrants are returning to their countries of origin of their own accord.

Unemployment has tripled since 1991, and the devaluation of the peso has sliced wages by nearly a third of what they were worth against the dollar five months ago.

"For what we're making now, it's not worth it anymore," said Violeta Rodriguez, 32.

She left her husband and four children behind nine months ago to work for 400 pesos a month as a nanny and housekeeper for a wealthy Buenos Aires family. When the peso was still worth a dollar, she used 100 pesos of her salary to live on and sent 300 pesos home. Inflation has increased her cost of living, and the pesos she sends to Peru go only a third as far.

Mrs. Rodriguez said she is saving for a return trip home. But migration experts say the flow of immigrants likely will pick up again when the economy begins to show signs of improvement.

"We have a saying: When things are bad in Argentina, they're worse in Paraguay," Mrs. Alvarez Fleitas said.

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