- - Thursday, February 2, 2017

History, border stances compared to Trump‘s

CORDOBA, Argentina | With President Trump’s travel ban dominating global headlines, another businessman-turned-president is using his executive powers to toughen immigration rules and speed the deportations of undesirable migrants. But unlike Mr. Trump, Argentina’s Mauricio Macri isn’t making good on a campaign promise but trying to boost his party’s chances in this year’s crucial midterm elections and setting off a political firestorm.

Mr. Macri last week signed an emergency decree to expedite the deportation of foreign residents who commit crimes, as well as to keep out prospective migrants with prior convictions. In line with his longstanding pledge to fight organized crime, the center-right president’s measure specifically targets suspects of drug and human trafficking, money laundering and organ and arms trade.

Inevitably, Mr. Macri’s move immediately drew comparisons with Mr. Trump’s hotly debated decision to temporarily bar visitors from seven largely Muslim countries and cut off the flow of refugees. Security Minister Patricia Bullrich has even found herself fielding questions about whether the Macri administration was planning to build a wall along Argentina’s porous northern border.

The government had “absolutely” no intention to emulate the American leader, she told the El Tribuno newspaper, which serves northern cities close to the Bolivian border. Vice President Gabriela Michetti, for her part, doubled down by claiming the ruling Cambiemos coalition’s views “run contrary” to Mr. Trump’s immigration and border policies.

Still, critics were quick to point out that both Mr. Trump and Mr. Macri cited national security concerns as their rationale for forceful action, and Argentine analysts echoed warnings that tightening borders may do little to stem real risk — be it crime or terrorism.

“Politically, I see it as a step backward,” said Silvana Begala, a lawyer and demographer at the prestigious National University of Cordoba. “The relationship between migration and crime, as it is presented, is nonexistent.”

As with Mr. Trump, skeptics contend that Mr. Macri’s efforts are little more than window-dressing. “There will be things to show off: The number of deportations will rise,” Ms. Begala said. “[But the changes] will not have an impact on crime.”

That, however, is just what Mr. Macri is counting on. His decree comes on the heels of public outcry over the Christmas Eve death of Brian Aguinaco, a 14-year-old gunned down in a botched robbery in Buenos Aires’ Flores neighborhood widely attributed to a Peruvian minor who — on account of his own age — was set free shortly after his arrest.

The incident reignited calls to break foreign-led cartels’ hold on shanty towns in Flores and similar areas — a sentiment Mr. Macri shrewdly tapped into as he used executive power to get ahead of Congress, which had been set to consider immigration law changes when its recess ends in March, noted Mariano de Vedia, a political analyst for the La Nacion daily.

With foreigners accounting for one in five federal inmates in Argentina — a percentage almost identical to the one the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports for the United States — Mr. Macri proclaimed a “critical situation that merits the adoption of urgent measures.”

“The president surprised with the decree,” Mr. de Vedia said. With many here already focused on the late 2017 midterm elections, “it is seen as a measure with an electoral purpose,” he added.

Once they are back in Buenos Aires, though, the ball will be back in lawmakers’ court since Congress must eventually approve — or reject — such emergency executive action. That, in turn, will likely give Peronist Sergio Massa — a key opposition leader — an opening to reclaim his law-and-order mantle.

And the former Peronist presidential candidate already upped the ante over the weekend when he turned on critics who had deemed the administration’s efforts a thinly veiled nod to xenophobic instincts.

“Criminals must be denied entry, and foreigners who commit crimes must be expelled,” Mr. Massa said. “There is no contradiction between the policy of respecting [individual] rights and the policy of guarding sovereignty from a security point of view.”

Both Mr. Massa and Mr. Macri need to be careful to not get carried away as Argentines have little appetite for a Trump-like crackdown on immigration, Mr. de Vedia said.

In a country almost entirely consisting of descendants of immigrants — the Spanish conquistadors encountered only a small native population here — Argentines live under a constitution commanding them to welcome “all men of the world who wish to live on Argentine soil.” And the ubiquity of Italian and Spanish surnames and family trees vividly illustrate that legacy, Ms. Begala noted.

“That vision of immigration,” she said, “will be difficult to break.”

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