(This article and its content were first published in the Buenos Aires Herald (print edition), July 10, 2015).
Immigrants coming to live and work in Argentina continue to face a bureaucratic gauntlet when applying for a temporary or permanent visa and the necessary National Identification Document (DNI), but a series of reforms to the application system and improvements to Buenos Aires City’s immigration centre have refined the process for some.
The Interior and Transport Ministry launched sweeping reforms of Argentina’s passport, DNI document and visa application process in 2009, significantly modernizing all elements, including the addition of a digital element which, in theory, has made day-to-day use more straightforward and streamlined the application and renewal processes.
However, whether this streamlining has extended to immigrants choosing to stay and work in Argentina and their own experiences in obtaining visas and identification remains less clear. The application process for expats is necessarily more complex and demands more preliminary steps than it does for natives. This is true even for those arriving from neighbouring nations belonging to the region’s the supra-state trading bloc Mercosur, who need less documentation than others.
Twenty-one-year-old Laura Sán-chez, an industrial design student from Bolivia currently living in Las Cañitas, found her recent experience complicated by staff at the newly renovated immigration centre in Retiro.
“The people who processed all my paperwork were fine, but when I needed information, they were dismissive — as if you were supposed to know the answer, despite sitting there with a sign saying ‘information.’ They weren’t helpfull at all.” Indeed, many immigrants including Laura turn to their national consulates for technical help after after the information services at migraciones fail to provide adequate help.
Issues regarding the availability of information for the labyrinth application process appears a recurring theme among immigrants seeking either the student or work visa and associated DNI. Uruguayan Juan Eraso, 28, was frustrated in his efforts to gain legal residency status having moved from Montevideo and found work in Buenos Aires to fund his performance arts degree, also based in the City.
“The process is very complicated, and I consistently had problems knowing what steps I needed to take and when,” he said, smiling nonetheless now that his visa and DNI were safely in hand. “I was only informed by the authorities much later that rules had changed and I needed more documentation, by which time the paperwork I had aquired such as my Argentine Criminal Record Check was expired, and I had to repeat many steps again.”
Inaccessible or lacking information vital to the application process can exacerbate the complicated, multi-stage process, which is itself fraught with potential difficulties. The sheer number of different steps successful applications require can lead to the system tying itself in knots, whereby certain documents become invalid before others are issued. Consequently, “the experience was nothing shy of unpleasant,” according to Rubén López, a data processor and economics student from El Salvador living in Palermo.
“I had my temporary residency precaria form, which had a validity of three months, but after two and a half had elapsed, there was no sign of my DNI and I was close to having to leave the country. I tried to contact immigration, but every number I found simply led me to answering machines. I was getting desperate,” he says, having only resolved the problem by renewing his temporary residency — involving more paperwork — until the DNI arrived.
Yet for the many immigrants like Rubén frustrated by the application process, there remain others among Buenos Aires’ expansive immigrant population — the City is home to between 400,000 and half a million foreign nationals — who find the system in its current form much improved.
James Clacton, 42, a software developer living in Belgrano, experienced the process before and after the reforms began in 2009 and attests to the improvements made. “Back in 2006, to first get my permanent residency, I had to wait in line at the dilapidated old RENAPER office in Retiro at literally 4am because they only gave out about 100 numbers per day, and if you were in the back of the line you would miss out… All in all it took me about six months to get my residency and another 18 months to process my DNI.”
He says that since the gradual reforms, which required everyone to re-apply for the new digital DNI, the process has become far easier for foreigners such as himself. “A few weeks ago, with much trepidation, I applied for my new plastic card DNI. This time I was in and out of the office in an hour, and they delivered it in the mail about three weeks later… As Kafkaesque as things sometimes are here, some things have actually improved in recent years.”
Mixed progress in expat fortunes regarding the bureaucratic aspects to emigrating is also reflected by some foreigners arriving here only recently and encountering relatively few difficulties. “I got my first appointment a few weeks ago and I was amazed at how nice all the employees were with me and how easy it’s been to get the temporary residency permit,” says Fanita Guadalupe Juárez Pimppiez, 30, a French immigrant who works as a coordinator at the local Alianza Francesa theatre in the northern Greater BA district of Martínez. However, avoiding the extra paperwork necessary to obtain the DNI streamlined the process, she concedes.
Similarly proofreader Allan Kelin, in his fifties and originally from from New York City, reported a generally positive experience during his appointment at the immigration centre. “I found that all the bureaucracy was bearable because, without exception, the people behind the glass or desk all took the time to make sure I understood what was required and where I needed to go next. There are several steps and many people waiting, but the experience was never de-humanizing.”
‘So much better this year’
Though updated, however, the complex visa and DNI application process can still leave some prospective expats cold. Indeed, the reocurring instances of false information for those applying persist. Autumn Pittman, 42, a business owner from the United States living in Caballito, was left in legal limbo for extended periods as a result.
“I got my precaria and CUIL and I feel it took far too long. We have been through several processes since coming here over a year ago. I wish someone would update the website now and then as it would have saved us a ton of wasted visits to government buildings and agencies,” she said.
Similar problems, such as the changing of application fees without widespread notifications, were also reported, though few immigrants living in Argentina long enough to experience the necessary beureaucracy that comes with expat life reported that the situation had deteriorated. For many, it has gradually improved.
“The first time I applied was quite stressful. I was new to the city and my Spanish was bad. The company I worked for sponsored me but gave me the instructions in Spanish so I had to rely on helpful colleagues to get everything organized. It took about three months to get everything. Migraciones was unorganized and the workers were quite rude,” said Megan Edwards, a 33-year-old Candian from Alberta now working as a teacher trainer, remembering her first experience.
She was adamant that the bureaucracy was now more manageble, though. “This year, it was so much better. They’ve done some awesome changes at Migraciones. It’s much more organized and the workers were very helpful and friendly.”