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Chile mimics U.S. immigration policy

Maxine Lowry  |  Issue: January 2020
pro immigration rally in Chile



As hundreds of immigrants camped in Mexican border towns, hoping to enter the United States, during a few months the scene was mirrored 4,000 miles to the south, at the Chilean-Peruvian border. The southern tent cities were the personification of Chile’s transformation into the prime destination for Latin American migrants and of the country’s challenges in adapting its immigration policy to new times.

Between 2000 and 2017 immigration to Chile leaped 176%, due to its stable economy option and because other countries closed their borders. Until 2018, the major immigrant community was Peruvian, which begin arriving in the late 1990s, fleeing economic chaos and political repression, with more than 249,000 persons. The greatest increase was experienced by the Haitian community, which grew from 1,649 individuals in 2014 to 73,098 in 2017. According to the Interior Ministry, since 2017 Venezuelans rapidly caught up and now surpass Peruvians, with more than 400,000, or 30% of all immigrants in Chile.

Open borders had been common practice among South American nations. However, in recent years, several countries, including Chile, began a selective immigration practice, sometimes appearing to mimic that of the United States.

Control of undocumented immigrants in Chile was virtually unheard of until recent years. To the contrary, in 1997 and again in 2007, approximately 45,000 and 50,000 people, respectively, benefited from amnesty that normalized the immigration status of immigrants whose visas had expired. But in 2018 police began conducting immigration checks in public places, with 14,000 checks that year; for 2019 it set the goal of 85,000 immigration checks.

In February 2019 President Sebastian Piñera traveled to the Colombian border town of Cucuta to rally support for self-proclaimed president of Venezuela Juan Guaidó. Yet, when thousands of Venezuelans began making their way south to the Chilean border, the government introduced stricter immigration requirements. In June 2019 Chilean government implemented a Democratic Responsibility Visa exclusively for Venezuelans. The immediate visible result was rows of tents that cropped up in June and July along the streets of Peruvian border towns of Tacna and Chacalluta, as the new Chilean policy halted entry of hundreds of Venezuelans.

Haitian immigrants began to face similar obstacles. As of April 2018, six months after the U.S. ended Temporary Protected Status for Haitians, Chile began to require a tourist or Family Reunification Visa for Haitian entry. Similarly, in August 2018, Chile announced a Voluntary Return Program for Haitians, on the condition they not return to Chile in 9 years. The first flight took off in November 2018, with 160 people aboard a Chilean Air Force jet, a negligible percentage of the thousands of Haitian residents in the country. Haitian community leaders – who indicate that the majority do not wish to return to Haiti -signal frustration with the failure of social programs to foster integration, resulting in conditions of extreme vulnerability and poverty for some.

The growing immigrant presence has positioned the issue on the political agenda, when it had been absent in the past. In the last few years, dozens of immigrant advocacy organizations as well as university immigration study and law clinics have been founded. Seminars, articles and books examine the rise in discrimination, xenophobia, and racism, the latter particularly against Afro-descendant immigrants. A coalition of forty community organizations and academics exercised effective citizenship to persuade senators to introduce immigrant rights to a bill that the government intended to harden the current immigration law, enacted during dictatorship. The vote on the reform is expected early next year.

In an increasingly globalized and interdependent world, immigrants evidently are testing humanitarian ethics and cultural inclusion in Chile.

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