Explainer: Immigration Laws in the Americas

By Nneka Etoniru and Rachel Glickhouse

What are the recent changes to immigration laws in the hemisphere? AS/COA explains policies in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, and Mexico.

As the U.S. Congress debates immigration reform, other governments in the Western Hemisphere assess their own migration policies. In the last decade, numerous countries in the Americas saw increasing numbers of immigrants, which resulted not only from economic crises in the United States and Europe—discouraging migration to these regions—but also growth within Latin America. More South American migrants chose neighboring countries, such as Argentina and Chile, while Canada saw a boom in Asian immigrants. Given the rising number of newcomers, countries began considering new immigration policies.

AS/COA Online looks at changes in immigration laws and policies in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, and Mexico—home to some of the hemisphere’s largest migrant populations.

Explore by country:

Argentina: An estimated 1.8 million foreigners live in Argentina. As a major destination for Latin American immigrants, this country received more than 1.5 million residency applications between 2004 and 2012. Of the 700,000 South Americans who immigrated within the region in the past decade, a majority—around 500,000—went to Argentina. Over 84 percent of these immigrants hail from neighboring countries, with the largest numbers from Paraguay, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. Paraguayans represent the fastest-growing immigrant group in Argentina; the country saw a 69 percent increase in Paraguayan immigrants between 2001 and 2010.

In 2004, the Argentine government passed Law 25.871, known as the Migration Law. The legislation identifies immigration as a human right and promotes immigrant integration. The law guarantees equal access for immigrants to social services, education, health, justice, employment and social security—regardless of their legal status. It also offers migrants the right to unite with their families, specifically parents, spouses, and children. In addition, the law made it illegal to deny public services to undocumented immigrants and abolished a dictatorship-era rule that required public employees to report undocumented immigrants. In 2010, an amendment to the law laid out additional regulations for the legislation, prohibited deportations without judicial review, and pledged to reduce the number of foreigners held in detention.

In 2006, Argentina instituted its Plan Patria Grande program, which sought to give legal status to undocumented immigrants. This plan also allowed citizens of member countries in the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) to gain residency, as long as they lack a criminal record. By 2010, the program had helped nearly 100,000 immigrants gain permanent residency.

Brazil: An estimated 1.5 million foreigners live legally in Brazil. In the last half of 2012 alone, immigration increased 50 percent compared to the same period in 2010. In addition, the number of asylum applications to Brazil tripled from 2010 to 2012.

In recent years, amnesty represented the main legislative efforts at immigration reform. In July 2009, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva signed Law 1664, giving amnesty to the estimated 50,000 undocumented immigrants living in the country at the time.

But since then, policies toward undocumented immigrants have largely focused on one group. Starting in 2011, several thousands of Haitian refugees entered Brazil through the Amazon, representing the largest migration flow to Brazil in a century. The federal government agreed to legalize these migrants—many fleeing their country after the 2010 earthquake—but not undocumented immigrants from other countries. Initially, the government agreed to give 1,200 work visas a year to Haitians. But in April, the National Council on Immigration (CNI) ruled that an “unlimited” amount would be given in order to try to avoid abuses by human smugglers and dangerous routes to reach Brazil.

Now, legal immigration is the focus of the government’s immigration policies. An influx of immigrants from countries such as Portugal and Spain—and a shortage of skilled workers—led to recent calls for reform. The country’s most recent immigration law dates back to 1980, passed during the military dictatorship. In April, the Secretariat of Strategic Affairs said the government will aim to attract 6 million foreign workers in the next few years in order to fill labor gaps.

Concrete steps have taken place through policy resolutions, while a new law has yet to come. In May, the minister of justice announced the creation of a committee to draft new immigration legislation. Also in May, the CNI issued a resolution that allows documents to be sent online and reduces the number of documents needed to apply for a visa. It created an electronic registry of companies and employers who hire foreigners. Another CNI resolution passed in December allows individuals—not just companies—to request work visas. It also allows dependents of foreign workers to gain employment visas.

Canada: Since 2006, Canada has sustained the highest levels of immigration in its history. Around 7.2 million foreigners call the country home, and the largest groups of newcomers come from the Philippines, China, and India.

Numerous legislative changes have taken place as immigration has grown. Launched in December 2008, Canada’s Action Plan for Faster Immigration focuses on streamlining the immigration process to reap the greatest economic benefit. The plan places skilled worker applicants as high-priority, and fast-tracks applications from international students who attended Canadian universities and temporary foreign workers employed by Canadian companies. As a result of the plan, the total backlog for permanent residency applications decreased 40 percent from 2011 to 2012.

In June 2012, the Canadian Parliament passed the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act to improve the speed and efficiency of the country’s asylum process. The bill also aimed to prevent criminals such as smugglers and traffickers trying to enter the country disguised as refugees.

This year, work programs also underwent significant changes. In January 2013, the Canadian Experience Class program—which allows foreign students and temporary workers to apply for permanent residence—halved the required amount of time that immigrants must work in Canada before applying for residency. The program now allows foreign university students to spend 36 months—rather than 24—working in Canada after they graduate.

In May 2013, the government relaunched the Federal Skilled Worker Program (FSWP), which accepts applicants for residence based on their skills. The program was frozen the previous June to revamp the selection criteria. Now, language is the most important factor, and a new emphasis is being placed on age based on the belief that the younger the applicant, the more economically adaptable he or she is. Education, employment status, and work experience are also factored in. The FSWP managed to eliminate its backlog and currently has an applicant wait time of less than one year.

The government also aimed to attract immigrant entrepreneurs. Launched in April 2013, the Start-Up Visa program provides tech entrepreneurs a path to permanent residence as well as business development support.

In the next two years, immigrant families will face changes. On one hand, the Action Plan for Faster Family Reunification will undergo changes next year to decrease backlogs, and will admit 50,000 parents and grandparents of immigrants for permanent residence. On the other hand, another change could separate families. Due to take effect in January 2014, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations amendment will lower the age of a dependent from 22 to 19 in the eyes of immigration law. The legislation will require families with dependents older than 19 to submit separate immigration applications, a move expected to cut 7,000 applicants.

Chile: This country’s immigrant population more than doubled since 2002, reaching nearly 370,000 in 2010. The number of foreign workers living in Chile increased by 28 percent from 2010 to 2011, while the number of migrants from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries rose 92 percent in the past five years.

Given the rising number of newcomers, Chile is considering immigration reform. The Draft Law on Migration and Foreigners, currently under discussion in the Chamber of Deputies, aims to replace the Andean country’s dictatorship-era immigration law, passed in 1975. President Sebastián Piñera proposed the legislation to address the rising number of undocumented immigrants entering the country, as well as labor shortages.

The legislation would reduce red tape, facilitate the process for obtaining legal status, and form a new body to oversee migration policy. The bill would also ease the process for obtaining employment visas and would set immigration quotas for certain specialized jobs, such as surgeons. It would also expand the 15 percent foreign labor cap placed on companies by including exceptions for highly skilled professionals, relatives of Chileans, foreigners who have had residency for more than five years, and companies with fewer than 25 employees. This bill also establishes rights and regulations for foreigners living in Chile. Another piece of labor legislation under development would create a special visa for seasonal jobs in order to prevent shortages in certain industries, particularly agriculture.

Mexico: While Mexico attracts a large amount of transit migration, it’s also a destination. An estimated 961,000 foreigners reside in Mexico, with more than 75 percent of the foreign-born population hailing from the United States. A large portion includes family members of Mexicans; the Pew Hispanic Center reports that in 2010 there were 500,000 U.S.-born children in Mexico. After the United States, Guatemala and Spain account for the highest numbers in terms of Mexico’s foreign-born population, at 3.7 percent and 2 percent respectively.

In recent years, inflows of foreigners seeking residency came largely from countries in the Americas. In 2011, around 20 percent of immigrants hailed from the United States. About 8 percent of immigrants came from Cuba, and another 8 percent from Colombia. Venezuelans and Guatemalans both accounted for 6 percent of immigrants who settled in Mexico. Chinese, Argentine, and Honduran immigrants also counted among the largest number of newcomers seeking permanent residency.

As a transit location, around 140,000 migrants—largely from Central American countries El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—pass through Mexico to reach the United States each year.

For them, the dangers of migration include kidnappings, extortion, and sexual and physical abuse. The country’s National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH, its Spanish acronym) estimates approximately 22,000 migrants are kidnapped annually. A 2011 CNDH report found that that, according to witness and testimony accounts, 76.1 percent of kidnapping victims are Central American migrants.

To address the perilous conditions faced by migrants, the Mexican government decriminalized illegal immigration when it passed the Migration Act into law in May 2011. The law guarantees immigrants access to education, health, and justice. It also allows them to file legal complaints—many migrants would not report abuses due to being undocumented—and carries a possibility of obtaining legal status.

In addition, the law recognizes the rights of migrants regardless of their legal status, and promotes family unity. The legislation also aims to improve security of migrants and of the immigration process by improving information sharing between government agencies. It also seeks to improve the country’s labor force, as well as helping Mexican emigrants return home.

It remains difficult to assess the impact of the law, in part because it was not fully implemented until November 2012, less than a month before the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto took office. Furthermore, concerns persist about human right challenges. Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2013 shows that migrant protection remains inadequate: migrants are rarely informed of the rights the new law gives them, and officials and criminals alike threaten refugee shelters that assist migrants. Progress is also being hindered by corruption: Between 2006 and 2012, 500 migration agents were forced to resign due to complaints of abuse, extortion, and ties to crime organizations.

In June, Secretary of the Interior Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong announced that the government is working on a plan to address security and labor issues at Mexico’s southern border. The goal is to be able to identify migrants entering the country, as well as to work with neighboring governments such as Belize and Guatemala. The navy, which will spearhead the plan, will also work with state governments along the border.