A New Destination — Back Home
Many from Argentina tire of life in U.S. as they see native land's economy growing
By CASEY WOODS
March 28, 2006, 11:34PM
In classic fashion, Argentina shows signs of rising from the devastation of a crisis — this time, 2001's epic financial fall.
Construction is booming. New boutique hotels dot commercial districts.
Argentines living in the United States have noticed. Many came here to escape that economic crash, and have since learned how complicated the life of an expatriate can be.
After several years, the undocumented chafe under the ever-tightening legal noose that keeps them from obtaining a driver's license and from visiting their patria. For those lucky enough to have work visas, the trade-off between the money they make here and the family they miss there has often become a painful calculation.
Thousands have had enough, and are deciding to go home — despite indications that Argentina's economic resurgence is fragile and the country could be headed toward another crash.
"The immigration laws get tighter every day, and I have to live afraid, when the only thing I want to do is work for my family," said Marcelo Safa, who is undocumented.
Safa came to Miami five years ago, and has since turned a carpentry hobby into a career, making a lucrative living out of the custom-built cabinets and furniture he crafts.
Despite that thriving business, Safa's wife and two young daughters have returned to their native Cordoba, and he plans to follow in October.
Fewer return to Miami
Immigration records from Buenos Aires' Ezeiza International Airport show that from 2002 to April 2005, 35,000 more Argentines arrived from Miami than returned to Miami, according to research by Argentine journalist Diego Melamed.
"The majority of those who went to the United States did so because it was the cheapest ticket and the easiest place to start a life where they could still speak Spanish," Melamed said.
"It wasn't a well-planned immigration, and now sufficient time has passed for them to realize that the life of an immigrant is not as easy as they thought it would be."
Some of the undocumented are even considering desperate measures to return, according to Argentine deputy consul Maximo Gowland.
"I'm amazed at how much people know about the deportation procedure, and how they talk about how in the worst case scenario they'll spend 30 days at Krome (detention center)," Gowland said. "It's a dangerous gamble, but they think about it as a ticket home."
In the past three years, the consulate has seen evidence of the reverse migration. The number of requests granted for "certificates of residence," which allow Argentines who live abroad to bring back their belongings tax-free, has nearly quadrupled.
Many of those heading back arrived in Miami during the disastrous economic collapse in 2001-02, when Argentina reneged on more than $100 billion in debts, the largest government default in history. Bank accounts were frozen as the currency crumpled, losing 75 percent of its value. Unemployment neared 25 percent.
Many, if not most, of those migrants came to Miami, where a U.S. visa waiver program allowed them to enter the country without a visa — a situation that lent itself to those hungry for work and willing to stay illegally to find it.
The U.S. government abruptly ended the program — which first included Argentina during the country's flush years in the mid-1990s — in February 2002 as the economic crisis peaked and thousands overstayed their allotted time.
No official numbers
There are no official numbers of how many remain, but Argentina's consulate in Miami estimates 200,000 Argentines live in South Florida.
Meanwhile, Argentina is now buzzing with economic activity. The economy has grown more than 8 percent annually for the past three years.
Still, those returning are realistic. "The Argentine economy is doing much better, but I will never totally trust it," said Ariel Champanier, a real estate broker who plans to return to Buenos Aires soon.
Champanier, 28, has a work visa and real estate investments in Miami, but life here doesn't include what he most misses: his family, his dog and weekend afternoons watching his favorite soccer team. "I came here to make money, but that's not my first priority anymore," he said.
Caution is right course
Economists say expatriates are right to be cautious.
Even now, with all of the Argentine economy's engines pumping, certain fissures show its enduring weakness. The government depends on make-work programs to occupy the many unemployed. Inflation was 12.3 percent last year, and in the first months of this year it hit 18 percent.
Some returning Argentines have learned how tricky that economy can be.
Hector Lio, 40, went back to his hometown of Mar del Plata in 2004, opening a minimarket and an event hall with the $22,000 he had saved in his four years in Miami.
The market was robbed four times, and both businesses went under in less than a year. "Everything I had made in four years, Argentina took from me in one," said Lio, who now lives and works in Spain with his family.