Open Borders in Argentina: A major policy shift (?)


The short version of this post for the time-crunched? Five lessons for policymakers based on the example of Argentina’s open borders policy:

  1. Sometimes the most effective framing of a policy change might be to frame it as no change at all in order to preclude resistance.
  2. Framing an issue as a reversion to an old value frame, in this case the Argentine constitution, may insulate from attack.
  3. Simplicity of narrative trumps historical accuracy.
  4. What constitutes change depends on what one considers normal–by definition a subjective question.
  5. When a particular frame lines up with someone’s interests–whether they are a policymaker or a blogger–we should be suspicious, especially when we agree with their arguments and their intent.

The longer version, for the rest of you:

Migrating to Argentina is easy. You don’t need special papers or anything, you can just walk in. I know several cases (from an Iranian friend from work to the Paraguayan lady that helps at home) where they had no trouble entering the country, settling and doing the paperwork to become residents.
– A particularly good-looking Argentine friend of the author

In our theory class last week, our writing prompt was to analyze a major policy shift: What preceded it, followed it, made it possible, made it important? Those friends and colleagues of mine paying any attention will be unsurprised to find that I chose immigration policy for this particular assignment to discuss a rapid policy shift. Rather than focus on Texas or US policy, as those same friends and colleagues might expect, I decided to look south–as far south as I could manage, to Argentina.

In 2014, I read an article based on a 2010 paper about Argentina’s open borders policy. The article was posted on a wonkish blog called Open Borders: The Case, and tells a dramatic story of Argentina overhauling its immigration policy in 2003-2004 to become a (highly caveated) archetype of open borders: Basically, if a migrant to Argentina is able to find a family or employer sponsor, they can apply for residency. If they can’t, they are classified as “irregular migrants” and given every opportunity to find a sponsor. Only in rare instances are migrants deported.

Ah! A major policy shift, I thought, one which could satisfy my class requirements and provide ammunition for my conversations about the inanity of US immigration policy, conversations in which I incessantly argue for fewer immigration restrictions in the US. But I was wrong: As best the Internet can tell, this doesn’t seem to have been a major Argentine policy shift at all:

  • As our original Open Borders article points out, the rights of migrants were already enshrined in multiple parts of the original Argentine constitution. Here’s one line from Article 20: “Foreigners enjoy within the territory of the Nation all the civil rights of citizens.” The 2003 law reflected what had been in the Argentine constitution for decades (N.B. to future constitutional assemblies).
  • A number of histories of Argentine migration don’t even mention the change in law, including:
    • The English nor Spanish Wikipedia entries
    • This book, the title of which translates to The Geopolitics of the Boundaries and Borders of Argentina
    • This Organization of American States history)
  • A 2017 adjustment to the law in reaction to concerns about overcrowded prisons, narcotrafficking and human smuggling seemed to cause no great policy debate–80% of Argentines agreed with the restrictionist changes and the country’s president reiterated that it remained committed to open borders.  
  • That same Argentine friend of mine, who had written a term paper on Argentine migration while at Oxford, had no recollection of the 2003 law.

It is conceivable, of course, that brief internet research conducted primarily in English by an American in Texas could overlook markers of significant political importance. But it may also be that this major policy shift was not, in fact, that major–either in Argentine history or in comparison to other South American governments’ concurrent policy shifts. It certainly feels like a major shift to those of us in the United States, whose maze of immigration policies offers visas to supermodels but not to enough agricultural workers. But this kind of subjectivity poses a problem, especially for proponents of punctuated equilibrium theory, which suggests that policy change, like evolution, tends to proceed incrementally and at the edges, except when equilibrium is punctured and a flood of changes all happen at once. Looking at the Argentine context suggests to me that something is off with such a framing of the 2003 changes in Argentine immigration law, and that understanding why might add some nuance to how we understand seemingly major policy shifts. But before we get there, let’s have a look at some other lenses through which we might view the 2003 Argentine law, assuming–as I did when I began this paper–that the law was in fact a significant shift in Argentine immigration policy.

First or Second?

If you wear glasses, you have likely been to an optometrist. If you have been to an optometrist, you have likely been asked “Which of these helps you see better? The first [putting one lens over your eye] or [switches lenses] the second?” In our theory sequence so far we have so far covered many of what I will loosely call “lenses” through which we might view a policy change. A bounded rationality lens, for example, would hunt for explanations as to why this decision by the Argentine government (and the individuals involved) is basically rational–or what information they were missing to make a rational decision. It might have been rational, for example, for the Argentine government to promote immigration in the wake of a 1998-2002 financial crisis that had led to near-unprecedented emigration from Argentina.

Principal agent theorists would seek out information asymmetries between the actors and their overseers, with voters as principals and legislatures as agents; or perhaps legislators as agents and executing agencies as agents; they might point to the March 2017 restrictionist changes to the bill, for example, as evidence that previous Kirchner governments (agents) had been ignoring problems with the bill that voters (principals) had identified, or perhaps that the Argentine Congress (principals, in this case) had not been able or willing to conduct appropriate oversight over immigration agencies (agents).  

As you might suspect by now, I find most of those explanations relatively unhelpful in explaining Argentine (and American) immigration policy. Multiple examples, Argentina’s included, support empirical research that immigration restrictionism is a poor bet for most countries; if people don’t know this, it isn’t because the information isn’t available. We continue to make foot-shooting immigration policy decisions in the United States despite the evidence; if there is information asymmetry, it seems to be willfully maintained. Something else must be going on.

The Institutionalists we have read would be similarly unimpressed by the atomistic, rationalistic explanations of the above authors (see DiMaggio 1991). They would point instead to the Argentine constitution’s enshrining of immigrants as would-be Argentines and to the accompanying myth of Argentina as a place welcoming to immigrants as bounding the ability of later politicians to enact restrictionist policies (Beland 2005; Meyers and Rowan 1997, respectively). They might also point back to the 2002 Mercosur Residency Agreement and to other South American countries’ immigration liberalizations as the precursors to Argentina’s change. Those changes added extra pressure on Argentina conform to regional norms and standards. The Kirchners, who had taken over the Argentine government in May 2003 after a period of political instability, might have felt personal pressure to build allies with other regional governments to consolidate their own internal control. Institutionalists call this phenomenon isomorphism, or the tendency of organizations over time to look increasingly like other similar organizations (DiMaggio 1983).

Now we’re getting somewhere. And in fact, if all we were interested in was an explanation of Argentina’s 2003/2004 immigration law, we could probably stop there. But while institutionalist frames are helpful, they’re not quite enough to explain why Argentina made such a policy change when America has not. To understand why, let’s imagine painting a similarly institutionalist lens to US immigration policy circa 2007:

The United States has a history of significant immigration inflows, from its early days through the 1910s when foreign born immigrants made up 14% of the US population. In its second city, New York, one of its most iconic monuments proclaimed it open to immigrants of all types from all over the world. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, the immigration system had broken down: With restrictionist laws allowing few avenues for legal entry to migrants from most Spanish-speaking countries, the number of irregular immigrants had risen to 11 million people. In 2007, George W Bush, a Republican president and former governor of the border state of Texas, began to push for a comprehensive immigration reform that would regularize migrants in the United States, fix the immigration intake system. It was a timely measure, internationally speaking–Latin American governments had stabilized and were looking for export partners just at the time the United States was working to balance the rise of China, South America’s natural trading partner behind America. The relationship with Latin America had long been a priority of President Bush, who before 9/11 had hoped to make deeper regional integration a part of his presidential legacy; the 2007 push for comprehensive immigration reform was one of a number of policy changes through which he hoped for history to define his presidency by something other than a disastrous decision to invade Iraq. Working across political lines with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, George W. Bush put forward the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 to the 110th Congress.

From an institutionalist perspective, such a bill should have sailed through the US Congress. But as most of my readers already know, W.’s immigration act never even got a vote on the Senate floor. The institutionalist lens helps us explain both the Argentine law that did happen and why a failed US law should have happened. That is a problem, and one that suggests that institutionalism might fall prey to the same critique we level at historical approaches to history; namely, that historians choose a narrative and then looks for facts to fit it.


What lens, then, can help us understand Argentina’s immigration policy shift? Having been distracted by our journey through different policy lenses, allow me to take us back to our original argument: This supposed policy shift was not a major shift at all; rather, it was a meaningful change framed as a major shift by an author who hoped to make a point to readers in countries like the US, whose restrictionist immigration policies he hoped to shift. What constitutes a major policy change, then, is decidedly subjective, and determined by the means and motives of policymaking agents to frame a change as major or minor or no change at all (see Snow et al 1986, Scheufele & Tewksbury 2007, Campbell 1997 for more on frames). We are frustratingly susceptible to that kind of manipulative framing, thanks to at least three shared human cognitive glitches.

First, our assessments of the importance of a policy shift is strongly affected by others’ interpretation of the importance of a policy shift. Knowing this, policymakers are liable to highlight or downplay the significance of changes they hope to make: See, for example, the small but significant changes that Donald J. Trump made to drone strike procedures in January 2017 (playing down) versus the fanfare around Barack Obama’s 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden (playing up).

Such efforts by politicians to frame an issue to their liking are bounded by others’ efforts, and especially those in today’s 24-hour news industry, to frame issues in ways that appeal to viewers. This points to a second limitation: Our assessments of the importance of policy shifts is bounded by our tendency to pay greater attention to simple, narratively straightforward conflicts. The success (so far) of the net neutrality movement came only with significant expenditures by deep-pocketed firms that were able to overcome the complexity of the issue with a simple “don’t let them slow down your Netflix” narrative. Had such lobbying not been able to get Americans’ attention, a major policy shift might well have occurred without users being any more the wiser. For an example of the opposite case, see the March 2017 changes in laws around ISPs selling browsing data.

Third, our assessment of the importance of policy shifts is dependent upon our own, highly context-specific understanding of what is “normal.” It may seem a bit left-field to a Californian for Texas to pass a restrictive, anti-trans bathroom law–but it was equally shocking to many Texans that the Obama administration would determine school bathroom policy from DC, seemingly out of the blue. Similarly, the idea of “open borders” is salient to American readers not because it was a shift in Argentina, but because they believe it would represent a radical shift if it were applied in the American context, which we believe that we understand, and because it has become a highly politically charged term.

What, then, are the lessons for US policymakers from the Argentine example? First, that sometimes the most effective framing of a policy change might be to frame it as no change at all in order to preclude resistance. A second lesson is that framing an issue as a reversion to an old value frame, in this case perhaps the Argentine constitution, may insulate from attack. Third, simplicity of narrative trumps historical accuracy. A fourth lesson is that what constitutes change depends on what one considers normal–by definition a subjective question. Finally, when a particular frame lines up with someone’s interests–whether they are a policymaker or a blogger–we should be suspicious, even and especially when we agree with their arguments and their intent.

One Reply to “Open Borders in Argentina: A major policy shift (?)”

  1. David, interestingly, Colombia is addressing the influx of Venezuelans in crisis (over 1M since 2015) via a rapid integration process and permanent “Special Stay Permits” (Google RAMV). It seems like a responsible way to document and manage massive migrant floes—might be worth reviewing in the US as one option for integrating current undocumented migrants and handling future ones.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: