BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- When Argentina was a mecca for migrants, Maria del Carmen Pinera came with her family from Spain. Her father was a carpenter. She was 5 years old.
Now 44, Ms. Pinera wants to go back. She has relatives in Spain who tell her it is a land of opportunity where her children can find work.
And so, like many Argentines whose European parents or grandparents came to this once-promising land, Ms. Pinera is getting her papers in order for the return trip.
Every working day, lines form on the sidewalks outside the consulates of Italy and Spain, the European countries that have sent most people to Argentina. Many are processing claims to Italian or Spanish citizenship, applying for passports or seeking work visas.
The would-be returnees are symbolic of changing migration dTC patterns in South America. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, many Chileans emigrated for political reasons, fleeing the military government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. But most migration is for economic reasons.
Borders between Latin American countries are generally easy to cross without documentation.
As a result, there is a large Colombian population in oil-rich Venezuela, for example. And Argentina, which historically had a higher standard of living than its neighbors, drew large labor forces from Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia and Chile.
But with the Argentine economy in decline for most of the past two decades, immigration from poorer neighbors has dwindled and the country has lost its magnetism for Europeans.
Intermittent waves of Italian and Spanish immigrants, beginning
in the mid-1800s and peaking at hundreds of thousands a year in the early 1900s, helped populate Argentina, a country with three times the combined area of Italy and Spain. About half of Argentina's 32 million people have Italian surnames.
Argentines who can prove that their immigrant forefathers did not relinquish Italian nationality may claim dual citizenship. "Until a few years ago, no one was interested," said an Italian diplomat. But now Italy's seven consulates in this country are swamped with paperwork to validate citizenships and issue Italian passports.
"There are thousands," said the diplomat. "The consulates don't give statistics because they don't have time."
Airline flights to Italy and Spain are full. Under current European Community regulations, citizens of any Western European country may move to any other, and that is what some migrants from Argentina to Spain and Italy do.
The Spanish consul issued 3,100 immigrant visas last year to Argentine families.