updated 5/5/2006 1:49:21 PM ET 2006-05-05T17:49:21

Thousands of immigrants marched through the streets, waving flags and chanting slogans demanding more rights for undocumented foreigners. “We are just workers,” they yelled.

This wasn’t Los Angeles, Chicago or Atlanta. It was Buenos Aires, home to hundreds of thousands of Bolivians, many of them undocumented, who slipped across the border from South America’s poorest country to find work in a richer country next door.

Weeks before pro-migrant marches in the streets of U.S. cities, Bolivians demonstrated in Argentina’s capital last month to demand better pay, working conditions and social services after a fire in a textile factory killed six Bolivians.

In the United States, lawmakers are debating the fate of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. But Argentina quickly implemented a plan to improve conditions and legalize within months tens of thousands of the 750,000 illegal immigrants from Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru.

Brazil, facing similar problems, is implementing a similar solution. It is offering an amnesty for Bolivians who entered the country before August 2005, giving them a chance to become permanent residents.

Fast-tracking immigration rights
Argentina’s plan would extend to migrants most rights enjoyed by Argentine citizens, while reducing black-market labor and registering all migrants. Several thousand undocumented immigrants have lined up to begin the legalization process, which will give them better job security, pay and access to social services.

Lawmakers approved the plan late last year, but put implementation on a fast track after the factory deaths.

“Argentina is a land of good will, and we want those who come here to work to feel like they’re ... helping to build this country and this region into what we dream it could be,” President Nestor Kirchner told lawmakers.

Once workers meet identification requirements, they are granted two-year residency cards and gain access to the same public services as Argentines. After three years, they can seek permanent residency.

“The legalization process is fairly straightforward in Argentina,” Bolivian Vice Consul Bruno Guzman Soliz said.

Bolivian migrants praised the Brazilian plan as well. Jorge Meruvia, a former garment worker and a leader of the Bolivian community in Sao Paulo, described the poorly paid work as a right of passage for generations of migrants to Brazil.

“On a Friday, I would start at 7 in the morning and work all day. At midnight I wouldn’t stop — I’d keep working. Saturday I’d work all day, without sleeping,” he said. “But I made a lot of money.”

Polite debate
Opponents of the legalization plans in both countries say they will encourage more Bolivians to leave their country and increase exploitation. But advocates say the migrants have long streamed in without amnesties — and the new laws will help protect them.

“We have to recognize that they’ll come here anyway because they want to get away from their situation in Bolivia,” said Sonia Francine, a Sao Paulo councilwoman. “If they can work legally it’ll be better. Because if they’re illegal they’ll accept anything and then be scared to go to the authorities when their rights are violated.”

Compared with the fiery debate on immigration in the United States, disagreement in South America is quite polite.

Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian who directs the Latin America and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami, said cultural and political affinities among left-leaning governments in South America have contributed to the conciliatory approach.

“Kirchner does not want to appear as the guy who is whipping and sending back Bolivians,” Gamarra said.

Hoping for improvement
Even with legalization, Bolivians’ situation abroad can be precarious. Viviano Solaras, a legal resident of Argentina, spends up to 16 hours a day sewing slacks and dresses for chic stores for only $65 a week. He called his work “slave labor,” but said it was double what he would make back home.

Still, he hopes the legal changes will end discrimination and improve working conditions for people like him.

“It will not help everyone, and change will not happen immediately,” he said. “But over time, we hope things will improve ... even if it’s only in our children’s lifetime.”

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