May / 01

Immigration and the Constitution of 1853

Alejandro Fernández, Universidad Nacional de Lujan 

Transatlantic immigration played a central role in the formation of modern Argentine society and in the image that most inhabitants had of the country. Practically since independence, an idea has existed that proposes that the increase in population, the promotion of productive activities, and the transformation of traditional habits and customs inherited from colonial times required the incorporation of immigrants, especially Europeans. This was reflected in the text of the national constitution, sanctioned on May 1, 1853 by a new national congress meeting in the city of Santa Fe. Core principles, contained in the chapter on “declarations, rights and guarantees”, remain in the constitution to this day. At the time of its approval, Argentina had a population of around 1.2 million inhabitants. Indigenous peoples continued to be the vast majority in large areas of the south and north of the country (the central Pampas, Patagonia, and the Chaco region) and, even outside those regions, sparsely populated and poorly connected peripheries abounded. Activities that would later be essential for export, such as grain production, were difficult to develop far from urban centers due to the scarcity and high cost of transportation and the low population. 

In 1853, those born abroad were only a notable part of the population in the city of Buenos Aires, while in most of the provinces the presence of foreigners was low or almost non-existent. Small contingents of Scots, Germans, Irish, and Basques from both sides of the Pyrenees had settled in the countryside of the coastal regions as part of the first official colonization projects or as the result of personal networks. But these initiatives had largely failed shortly after they began or were only in the early stages of development. In Buenos Aires, Genoese and other northern Italians, Galicians, Catalans, and Cantabrians began to form a new, albeit small, middle class, while British and, to a lesser extent, French merchants expanded their activities in Argentine markets. 

These early efforts of incorporating foreigners a long way off from ensuring sustained population growth through immigration, but they showed an opportunity that would be highlighted by liberal intellectuals of the time, such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento from San Juan or Juan Bautista Alberdi from Tucumán. The latter published the book Bases and Points of Departure for the Political Organization of the Argentine Republic in 1852, a proposal in which transatlantic immigration played a leading role. For Alberdi, it was not only a question of eliminating the “desert” by incorporating foreigners, but also one of accessing a higher level of civilization: “In America do we want to plant and acclimatize English freedom, French culture, the industriousness of the men of Europe and the United States? Let us bring living pieces of the customs of their inhabitants and settle them here.” 

A Copy of the Constitution, published in 1853 

The text of the constitution, which in general supported this ideology, established the equality between and civil rights of both natives and foreigners, eliminating all restrictions based on country of origin in matters of commerce and economic activities, access to property as well as freedom of worship, movement, residence, expression, the press, of instruction, and of assembly and association. Foreigners were exempted from military conscription and obligatory financial contributions; and the inviolability of their homes was guaranteed, unless expressly ordered by a judge. They were not required to take Argentine citizenship, although they would have the right to obtain it once they had two years of continuous residence in the country. If the constitution included the Alberdian ideal of the immigrant as an agent of civilization, it also included Sarmiento’s positions on the virtuous association between immigration, agriculture, and the colonization of public land, as can be seen in the section on legislative power. 

But the key element is found in article 25 of the constitution, which established that one of the obligations of the federal government would be to promote European immigration. This statement has generated controversy over time, due to the explicit mention of one continent from which the desirable population would come. However, it is worth noting that at the time it was difficult to imagine an origin other than European for immigration: neither Asia nor Africa, nor nearby Latin American countries, would have been able to provide the flows of migrants as large as those imagined by Argentine thinkers. On the other hand, the most important part of this article resides in its second part, much longer than the first, where it is established that the entry of foreigners who arrive for the purpose of cultivating the land, improving industries and teaching sciences and arts cannot be restricted, limited, or taxed. This part is more inclusive, since it speaks of “foreigners”, regardless of origin, and prevents restrictionist immigration policies in the future if they could be branded as unconstitutional. It can be said, therefore, that the Argentine constitution is marked by a non-exclusionist, pro-immigration mandate. To this day, a legally supported ideal of immigration persists, even as Europeans have been overtaken by those coming from neighboring countries. 

Immigration and the Constitution of 1853