The 60-foot-wide river that marks the boundary between Argentina and Bolivia at this border crossing is as unimpressive as the Rio Grande that marks part of the U.S.-Mexico border.
But it serves the same purpose—an easy way for people from Bolivia, South America’s poorest nation, to slip illegally into better-off Argentina in search of jobs so they can help support their families back home.
As the U.S. Congress tackles the thorny issue of immigration reform, Latin American nations are facing their own issues with the nearly three million people estimated to have migrated to neighboring countries within the region—both legally and illegally.
Some, like Argentina, are welcoming them because of labor shortages. The line of Bolivians waiting to enter La Quiaca legally these days snakes along the 100-yard bridge that spans the International River, even as others simply slip across the largely unguarded border.
But others are not. In southern Mexico, for example, border authorities are aggressively trying to stop the entry of Guatemalans and other undocumented Central Americans, most of them trying ultimately to get to the United States.
Argentina’s 2001 census put the number of Bolivians living there at 230,000, but analysts believe the real number could be as high as 500,000 because of the large number of undocumented migrants. Many work as cleaning ladies and maids; others work on farms or in construction.
“Bolivians have gone into areas of work where Argentines don’t compete, like picking grapes,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian native who heads the Latin American and Caribbeam Center at Florida International University. “But they also make up a large part of the construction industry in Buenos Aires and [the central city of] Córdoba It’s very similar to the United States, where the Mexicans started off in agriculture and moved into construction.”
Per capita income in Argentina in 2006 was $15,000, according to the CIA World Factbook, and only $3,000 in Bolivia.
It’s a similar story for the many Haitians who migrated to the neighboring Dominican Republic over the past few decades, most in search of jobs, some to escape political persecution.
FLACSO, a Latin American think tank, estimates that 500,000 Haitians currently live in the Dominican Republic.
Per capita income in Haiti was $1,800 in 2006, according to the World Factbook, compared to $8,000 in the Dominican Republic.
Haitian migrants have complained of discrimination and abuses, including the denial of Dominican citizenship for the children of undocumented Haitian migrants born in the Dominican Republic.
But the greatest flow of migrants in Latin American is from Colombia to oil-rich Venezuela, according to Jorge Martinez, an analyst with the Chile-based U.N. Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean.
Official figures from Venezuela’s 2001 census show that 608,691 people born in Colombia lived then in Venezuela, although Martinez believes the current number is higher because of continuing immigration and because many undocumented migrants were not counted.
In a telephone interview, Martinez cited “violence in Colombia, not enough good-paying jobs in Colombia and higher salaries in Venezuela” for the heavy immigration to Venezuela.
He said that the immigrants from Colombia typically consist of rural men who seek farm jobs in Venezuela and females from urban areas who head to Caracas and other cities to work as maids.
Under leftist President Hugo Chávez, an estimated 500,000 undocumented migrants—including a couple hundred thousand Colombians—were awarded Venezuelan citizenship as of mid-2004.
Chávez argued that it was high time to legalize the migrants who had lived there for years, but opponents said he wanted to earn their votes in future elections.