Argentina is a distant mirror that reflects what may be North America’s future. My country is a small-scale laboratory of the effects of migration: A suitable migration policy can transform a nation for the good; a wrong one spoils it.
Argentina became independent from Spain in 1816 just after Napoleos occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. After a period of struggle between caudillos, the country was unified with a constitution inspired, in part, by that of the United States. A generation of brilliant thinkers led by Juan Bautista Alberdi and Domingo Faustino Sarmiento saw European immigration as the key to modernity, and this was enshrined in Article 25: “The Federal Government will encourage European immigration; and may not restrict, limit nor tax in any way the entrance into Argentine territory of those foreigners, who have the purpose of working the land, improving industries, and introducing and teaching sciences and arts.”
To this end, President Nicolás Avellaneda (1837 – 1885) pressed for the Colonization and Immigration Law of 1876, which established immigrant recruiting agencies in the main cities of Europe. Qualified emigrants were offered third-class tickets on the steamships that ran from Genoa, Marseilles, and Naples to Buenos Aires. Newcomers were welcomed at the Hotel de Inmigrantes, and assigned jobs in the city or on farms in the interior. The architects of the “Great Immigration” made mistakes—little land was made available to newcomers, and many of them ended up in bad housing in the cities—but between 1880 and 1914 Argentina received more than six million Europeans, most of them from Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and Britain. In that very short period, Argentina went from being a colonial backwater to a First-World nation.
President Domingo Sarmiento (1811 – 1888), the seventh president of Argentina, was a personal friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and of Horace Mann’s wife. Known as the Horace Mann of South America, he reduced illiteracy to a rate lower than in some European countries; by 1947, illiteracy in Argentina was only 13 percent. With Mrs. Mann’s help, Sarmiento imported the “65 Valliants,” a group of young women teachers from Boston who were willing to teach in the then far desert of South America. We Argentines will always be grateful to them for their pioneering efforts…
In those days, many thought Argentina was called to be the United States of the south. By 1914, it had the sixth highest GDP in the world. Thanks to immigration, it went from a population of 800,000—mostly mestizos—in 1852, to 8 million in 1914. Eighty-five percent were white, and most of the remaining 15 percent were light-skinned mestizos, completely assimilated to Western culture. The concept of multiculturalism did not exist. Buenos Aires became known as the Paris of South America, with wide avenues, mansions, palaces, theaters, museums, schools, excellent universities, and renowned scholars and researchers.