Despite woes, Argentina still a magnet for immigrants

Proposed legislation would give foreign workers in Argentina greater access to services.

Shortly after Oleksandra Molodets and her family moved to Argentina, the country almost collapsed. Newly arrived from Ukraine, they watched as the president fled office in a helicopter while police shot demonstrators in the street. Then the currency plunged in value and large parts of the economy folded.

Yet despite it all, Ms. Molodets is still happy she came. "I love it here. Things are much better than in Ukraine," she says, her Spanish carrying a heavy Slavic accent.

Such devotion would surprise most Argentines. Since the economic crisis started to overwhelm the country in 2001, the National Directorate of Migrations (DNM) estimates that more than a quarter of a million Argentines have left this land of immigrants. Moreover, a poll this year found that 30 percent of the population said they were planning, or would like, to emigrate.

But this stampede for the exits masks the fact that for some, Argentina still offers the chance of a new life in the New World. With the United States and Canada tightening their borders since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Argentina has become a safety valve for those looking to leave their homelands.

Shortly after they arrived, the Molodets opened a small tailoring business in Buenos Aires' Palermo neighborhood.

"They say there is no work in Argentina, but it is not true," says Molodets of a country where 1 in 5 people is unemployed. "There is plenty of work. For those who want it you can work hard and make plenty of money."

The Molodetses first tried the US and Canada, without any luck. Then Oleksandra's mother heard from a friend about a neighbor who had gone to Buenos Aires and was making good money there as a waiter.

The DNM estimates that in the past three years, up to 10,000 Ukrainians have moved here, joining the more than 1 million foreigners already living among the country's 38 million people.

The majority of Argentines descend from Italian and Spanish immigrants. The capital is also home to Latin America's biggest Jewish community, as well as Arabs and Armenians. Taxi drivers might be from Uruguay, maids from Peru, and construction workers from Bolivia.

Around the corner from the Molodetses' store, Mohammad Sabbah is serving mouthwatering piles of Arab pastries with Turkish coffee. Mr. Sabbah moved his young family from Lebanon to Buenos Aires 18 months ago. "Every country has its difficulties, but in Lebanon they are so much harder," he says. "There, you can suddenly be without water or electricity. Or some days you will see Israeli fighter jets circling above you in the sky. Of course there are problems here, but at least when you twist the tap, there is water."

Like the Molodetses, the Sabbahs would have preferred the US. But Sabbah says that after Sept. 11, he suspects that as Arabs and Muslims, they would have been turned down. Instead they used his wife's family connections to move here.

Because of laws dating back to Argentina's military dictatorship in the 1970s, not all immigrants have it easy, especially those from elsewhere in South America.

Hundreds of thousands of Bolivians, Paraguayans, Peruvians, and Chileans living here are excluded from basic health and education services and are vulnerable as well to detention and deportation.

Now a coalition of trade unions, churches, and human rights groups have joined with immigrant groups to petition the government. A new bill is currently before Congress and DNM officials expect to be operating under new regulations by the end of the year.

But even with their residency papers, life for both families is hardly idyllic. Sabbah, for instance, decided to open his restaurant when it became clear it would take years to get his medical degree recognized in Argentina. He now accepts that he will not practice medicine in his new home.

Apart from such setbacks, the biggest challenge for both the Molodetses and the Sabbahs is dealing with the nostalgia for their old homes.

Molodets says she would love for just one week to go back to Odessa, a port on the Black Sea, "just to walk around its streets again." As the city that gave the world Tango, the mournful song of the immigrant, these are sentiments Buenos Aires understands well.

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