S. America's Expanding Exodus
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
BUENOS AIRES –– Passport agencies in Argentina are swamped with economic
refugees desperate to leave a nation suffering its worse recession in a
U.S. Embassy in Colombia is so overwhelmed by visa applications that the earliest appointments for interviews are in March 2002. In Ecuador, an estimated
500,000 people--4 percent of the population--have quit the country in the past 24 months, gone mostly to Europe, but also to the United States and Canada.
These are signs of what analysts, government officials and aid organizations
are calling the largest exodus from South America in almost a decade. Spurred
economic and political crises, large numbers of South Americans are planting roots in foreign lands while sowing fears back home of a professional brain drain and
The United States, in particular, has become used to waves of immigrants--legal
and otherwise, economic and political--from Mexico and Central America,
amounting to 300,000 a year from Mexico alone. But now, although estimates are vague, it appears at least half that many have started to leave South America as
well. The last time this continent experienced migration so large was at the end of the 1980s, when hyperinflation and drug and guerrilla wars crippled many countries.
The flow ebbed during the 1990s as economies healed temporarily, many
nations adopted free market reforms and the era of dictatorships passed
with every nation
in South America electing a government democratically. But a decade later--with such notable exceptions as Brazil and Chile--free market reforms often have
resulted in high unemployment and rising poverty because of government downsizing, a domino effect of failing local businesses and lower than expected foreign
"Let's face it, globalization and the economic transition has hit this
region hard," said Artemio Lopez, a Buenos Aires-based social economist.
"As time goes by, I
think the developed world, particularly the United States, will learn that one of the impacts as we struggle with our economies will be a greater inflow of immigrants."
By many estimates, this is the most diverse migration from the region,
encompassing the rich and the poor, who are leaving different countries
for varied reasons. It is
transforming the region as well as the emigrants' destinations.
In Florida's Miami-Dade County, for instance, middle- and upper-class
Venezuelans fleeing the "democratic revolution" of President Hugo Chavez
the fashionable Doral neighborhood into "Little Caracas," where the scent of Venezuelan corn-meal arepas wafts from the windows of half-million-dollar homes.
Back in the real Caracas, "for sale" signs clutter posh neighborhoods and classified ads are filled with cheap buys on country club memberships and other luxuries.
In the south of Spain, where hordes of Ecuadoran migrants are working
on olive and grape farms, there is a flourishing cottage industry of human
transporting thousands of dollars in remittances from the migrants to their families in Ecuadoran towns, some of which have been depleted of adult men. Remittances
are projected to climb to more than $1 billion in Ecuador this year, putting them behind only oil exports as the country's leading source of foreign capital, according to
"We are witnessing a migration crisis in South America provoked by widespread
social, political and economic problems," said Leonardo Carrion, director
Quito government's new Office for Ecuadorans Abroad, which provided the estimate for Ecuador's extraordinary emigration rate. "The types of emigrants and
reasons they are leaving may vary from country to country, but you can say it all stems from a loss of hope."
Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Paraguay and Argentina
are facing political strains in addition to economic upheaval. In Peru,
for instance, a roiling
crisis that ended in the ouster by Congress of President Alberto Fujimori--now holed up in Japan--has left a power vacuum and a brittle economy. Economists are
predicting zero growth for the fourth quarter, and that has translated into desperation on the streets of the capital, Lima.
The U.S. Embassy in Peru has registered a 53 percent jump in requests
for tourist visas, from 85,000 in 1999 to 130,000 in 2000. Analysts and
several of the
76,500 Peruvians who received visas this year say they are heading north for more than sightseeing.
"There is no work here," said a young Peruvian who asked that his name
not be used for fear of having his newly issued U.S. tourist visa revoked.
He recently lost his
job at a Lima-based company that laid off 70 people, so he is heading to New York City this month and says he may not come back. "There are no opportunities.
Work here has completely dried up with the economic crisis and I don't see things getting better in the coming years."
The tide of South American immigrants is expected to have a direct but
manageable impact on the United States. Analysts say the robust U.S. economy
can not only
absorb, but also needs, cheap labor from such countries as Peru and Ecuador as well as educated immigrants from more developed countries such as Argentina.
Also, although the United States is one of the top destinations for immigrants, other prosperous Western countries--particularly Spain, Italy and Canada--have
become equally popular. About 24 percent of the some 350,000 Hispanics in the Washington region have their roots in South America.
"This level of immigration from South America is something that the
U.S. can support economically," said James Lindsay, an immigration specialist
and senior fellow
at the Brookings Institution. "Of course, if the economy in the U.S. takes a turn for the worse, you probably won't see as warm a reception. But for the time being,
from a U.S. point of view, this does not appear to be a problem."
It has, however, put pressure on Washington to broaden immigration policy,
especially in the case of middle- and upper-class Colombians escaping the
guerrilla war. The Colombian American Service Association (CASA), a Miami-based immigration aid organization, estimates that in the past 12 months as many as
120,000 people have fled to the United States on six-month tourist visas.
Juan Carlos Zapata, CASA president, criticized the U.S. government for
failing to grant arriving Colombians "temporary protected status" or special
work visas like
those granted to immigrants from a handful of countries ravaged by war or natural disaster.
"We are talking about a double standard on Colombia," said Zapata, who
has been lobbying Washington for the past year. "The U.S. is more than
willing to say there
is enough of a problem in Colombia to back [the anti-drug] Plan Colombia, but when it comes to immigration, they pretend there is no problem at all. Instead, they
claim that most Colombians are coming for economic reasons. Tell that to a people whose sons and daughters are being kidnapped or killed every day in the streets.
It's not right, and it's not fair."
But the vast majority who leave South America cite economic need. Nowhere
is the problem worse than in Ecuador, where the economy is in ruins and
unemployment have continued to rise despite a controversial decision this year to adopt the U.S. dollar as its national currency.
In June, 27 Ecuadorians were found almost asphyxiated inside a tractor
trailer in Chiapas in southern Mexico. They had traveled overland from
Ecuador and were
aiming for the United States when their "coyote"--an immigration trafficker--abandoned them. In March, a boatload of 250 Ecuadorians, many dehydrated, were
found adrift off the coast of California by the Coast Guard. In July, five Ecuadorian marines jumped ship while in port at New York City.
On one recent afternoon, a 34-year-old Ecuadoran woman was standing
outside the U.S. Embassy in Quito in a line like those that snake for blocks
around many of
South America's Western consulates. She had taken a seven-hour bus ride from her home town of Alausi in hopes of landing a $45 tourist visa--with which, she said,
she would illegally stay on and look for work.
She makes $108 a month as a government clerk, about 60 percent less
than she made two years ago before the rapid devaluation of the local currency,
the sucre. If
she fails to win a tourist visa, she said, she may have no choice but to try to make it to the United States illegally. She will not be the only one in her family to leave.
One brother, she said, recently went to Spain, another to London.
"I don't care what I do," she said. "I have a friend who works as a
nanny and earns $300 a week! Just imagine! . . . You can buy things and
not just live day to day. I
will also be able to send money to my mother for her medication."
The tides are also flowing from such countries as Argentina, Latin America's
wealthiest nation and one that is overwhelmingly populated by the descendants
European immigrants who came here when it was the world's seventh-richest country at the turn of the century. But after a decade of free market reforms in which
the government and private sector rapidly downsized--and not enough jobs were created to absorb those laid off--unemployment hovers around 16 percent and
poverty has risen. The economy is wallowing in a two-year recession, leading tens of thousands of Argentines to seek the citizenship of their parents and
grandparents in such nations as Spain, Italy and Germany.
"Do you think this is not painful for me? Of course it is, I love my
country," said Sergio Paglia, 42, an industrial engineer who lost his job
in a corporate cutback four
years ago and has since been "barely providing" for his family of five by working as a chauffeur.
His grandfather, a carpenter from the Italian city of Bari, moved to
Buenos Aires during its boom years, around 1910. Now, the grandson is applying
for an Italian
"It's going to be tough, but we don't see any other way to build a good
future for our children," he said. "Will I return someday? Maybe. I hope
so. My bigger hope is
that maybe my sons will. But for that to happen, things here will have to change."
Also fleeing are university students, many of whom are going to the
United States on temporary visas to work at ski resorts and hotels. One
recent poll here showed
that 43.1 percent of university students were "thinking about" leaving Argentina for good.
On a recent afternoon, Miguel Klurfan, 19, was California dreaming in
the block-long line at the consular section of the fortress-like U.S. Embassy
in Buenos Aires.
The amateur surfer and economics major at a local university was on a mission "to find hope" in Los Angeles, he said.
"My mother is sad, very sad that I want to go, but I think even she
understands that there is no hope left here," said Klurfan. "There are
countless economists here
with university degrees who are now driving taxis. I tell you this. I am not going to be one of them."
Special correspondents Lucien Chauvin in Lima and Samantha Newport in Quito contributed to this report.
© 2000 The Washington Post