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Between upheavals and hope: Migrants test Chile’s ethical scaffolding

Maxine Lowy  |  Issue: June July 2021
Chileans defend the rights of migrants
Chileans take to the streets to defend the rights of migrants.
Photo: Radio uchile.cl

Lorena Zambrano and her two small children had barely slept on the buses since boarding the first in Machala, Ecuador four days earlier, but now that they were about to enter Chile their bags seemed lighter.

She had a passport, the invitation from her mother, return bus tickets, and a thousand dollars, all the requirements for a Chilean tourist visa. But the immigration agent would not let them in. Zambrano returned the following day and the same guard asked her, “What is the name of your mother’s landlord?” Unable to answer the question, she was turned away again. On the third day, there had been a shift change. The new guard stamped the passport and waved them through. At last, the weary travelers set foot on Chilean soil and Zambrano embraced her mother for the first time in two years.

This episode exemplifies on a small scale the discretionary, arbitrary and ever-changing immigration policy of Chile. It also illustrates the tenacity that drives people to seek better horizons beyond their own countries.

Lorena and her children journeyed 11 years ago, shortly after the inauguration of President Sebastián Piñera’s first term in office. Her mother had been a beneficiary of the amnesty enacted by President Michelle Bachelet to normalize the legal status of thousands of immigrants in Chile.

Since then, the Piñera government became one of the continent’s harshest in its approach to immigration issues. Lorena Zambrano, for her part, became a passionate immigrant-rights advocate with the Asamblea de Migrantes y ProMigrantes de Tarapacá (AMPRO) organization based in the northern city of Iquique.

Between 2000 and 2017 the immigrant population of Chile soared 176 percent, led by the Peruvian and Haitian communities, with more than 249,000 and 73,000 people, respectively. In those years open borders were the norm in most South American countries, with only an identity card required to cross borders. In 2017 the Venezuelan immigrant community equaled the Peruvians, and two years later became the largest immigrant group in Chile. Today, the Venezuelan community numbers more than 455,000, according to official statistics.

The growing immigrant presence positioned the issue for the first time on the political agenda, testing the principles that sustain Chile’s ethical scaffolding. This is most clearly seen in erratic policies regarding Venezuelan immigrants.

In February 2019, Piñera traveled to Cúcuta, a Colombian border town, to express “solidarity with the struggles of the Venezuelan people for the recovery of their democracy.” Venezuelans interpreted this as a humanitarian gesture and thousands headed south to Chile.

However, repeated expressions by the president and other government officials about “putting the house in order,” “protecting our borders,” “confronting foreign criminals,” and “differentiating between good and bad immigrants,” signaled the end of a short honeymoon. This rationale comprises the basis for Chilean immigration policy.

In June 2019, within a matter of months after the Cúcuta visit, hundreds of immigrants, mostly Venezuelans became stranded on the streets the Peruvian border town of Tacna, when Chile closed the refugee status recognition process. However, in September 2019, in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Piñera again criticized Venezuela for not respecting freedom and human rights.

Throughout 2020, refugee status was granted to just seven persons. In November 2020, the Foreign Relations Ministry, through its consulate in Caracas, denied thousands of Democratic Responsibility Visas, a mechanism introduced in 2018 to facilitate the entry of Venezuelans.

Tomás Greene, legal department director of Servicio Jesuita a Migrantes, says: “I believe that the government simply does not want to grant refugee status because that would compel it to issue visas while the refugee applications are processed. It views large migratory flows as a threat. This is highly irresponsible because it violates international treaties.”

Of the international humanitarian agreements signed by Chile, the 1984 Cartagena Declaration has the greatest relevance for Venezuelans. Its broad definition indicates that persons who flee due to “[generalized] circumstances that gravely disturb the public order” should be considered refugees. The uncertainty and difficulties for subsistence in their country qualify Venezuelan immigrants as humanitarian refugees.

In April 2021, the InterAmerican Human Rights Commission (IHRC) called upon states to adopt immigration policy and border management that incorporates a human rights focus. In regard to Chile, the IHRC decried “the deportation of people with no consideration for possible need for international protection or family reunification.”

The IHRC was referring to Chilean government warnings in early March that it would begin massive deportations of undocumented foreigners. The week before the announcement, a Colombian woman and a Venezuelan man died in the highland desert upon entering Chile. Despite the danger, from March 2020 to February 2021, regional officials estimate that more than 15,000 immigrants passed through Colchane, a village with a population of 1,600 near the Chile-Bolivia border.

On April 25, the government made good on its threat when 55 immigrants, mainly Venezuelans, boarded the first Sky Airline flight to Caracas. Immigrant law advocacy groups like Servicio Jesuita a Migrantes have filed injunctions in an effort to halt further deportations.

On April 11, Piñera signed a new immigration law, replacing the previous one enacted during the dictatorship, but retaining the suspicion towards foreigners that characterized the former law. Some aspects are seen as setbacks for immigrant rights: First, it introduces administrative measures to accelerate the expulsion of undocumented foreigners. Second, it prevents changing immigration status, for example, from a tourist to resident visa.

Immigration rights advocates are concerned that the new law will increase precarious living conditions for all immigrants. Moreover, says Francisco Bazo, of Movimiento Acción Migrante, “It won’t stop people from entering the country. Immigrants simply will become more vulnerable to exploitation.” He adds, “The state of Chile has never addressed the root problems that affect the country. We have seen it with the repression against the Mapuche people. We saw it with the social explosion of 2019. We saw it with the recent eviction of a shantytown, where many immigrants lived. Responding with a heavy hand will foster anti-immigrant and racist attitudes.”

In Iquique, during the first week after the law came into effect, Lorena Zambrano’s phone did not stop ringing with calls from anguished people. As of December 2020, AMPRO staff observed immigrants traveling together in groups, composed of many women and children. They come walking much of the last stretch, the 200 kilometers between Colchane and Iquique. Before crossing the border into Chile, their itinerary brings them through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, but they continue on to Chile because in the other countries “there is much aggression” towards immigrants,” Zambrano notes. And many have family members in Chile.

AMPRO’s veteran immigrants are there for the newest arrivals, mobilizing campaigns to obtain “everything a human being needs for a good quality life until going on to reunite with relatives,” says Zambrano. It is also a bridge between immigrants and the National Human Rights Institute, the agency that pursues cases in which fundamental rights are violated.

Each person Zambrano assists evokes the memory of her own arrival. “I cannot allow others to endure what I went through. We all have the right to live without upheavals.”

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