One of the biggest stories in global politics over the last couple years has been the growth in popularity of anti-immigration politicians and political parties. These movements have sprung up in various places across the Western world. Major events such as the election of Donald Trump in the US and the triumph of the Leave campaign in the UK were largely determined by this issue. Even where anti-immigrant movements have not won elections, their strength has shifted the discourse on immigration. Now almost every Western democracy is restricting its immigration policies.
In Chile, too, immigration has become a major political issue. The source of tension is the massive influx of immigrants that have arrived in the past few years. There are almost half a million now living in the country, approximately 2.5% of the population, which constitutes the largest wave of immigrants since the first half of the 20th century. In previous decades, as result of economic crises and state repression, Chilean society was marked by stories of emigration and exile. Now the forces of history, specifically economics in the current case, have reversed the trend.
The reception of these immigrants by Chileans is mixed. There are definitely segments of the population that welcome a more diverse society, particularly the young. Generally, these more cosmopolitan minded Chileans have themselves traveled or lived in other countries and so carry that mindset with them. Business interests, especially in construction and agriculture, favor open borders because it means more cheap labor. In a similar situation to what happens in the US and Europe, locals are not sufficiently motivated by manual labor jobs so rather than make it more appetizing business owners depend on foreign workers.
There is, however, significant backlash against immigrants and it is mostly based on cultural differences. Many feel that Chilean society is changing far too much and that it does not belong to “Chileans” anymore. For example, the Plaza de Armas, which is the traditional center of Santiago from colonial times, is now essentially a Peruvian ghetto. The people, the stores and the accent of the neighborhood are predominately Peruvian now. It is not uncommon to hear that the Plaza de Armas needs to be “taken back”. The countries of origin of most immigrants — Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia — are known to have very strong cultures and once implanted in Chile they do not shed their cultural background. If a person does not feel comfortable with cultural diversity, they naturally will resent these immigrants. The center of anti-immigrant sentiment is in the north and there have even been examples of street fighting between immigrants and Chileans in Antofagasta.
The racial component of anti-immigration sentiment cannot be ignored. Venezuelans, Colombians, Peruvians and Bolivians are mixed peoples. All these countries have strong indigenous heritage and the first three have important populations with African roots also. Within Chile, there is a racial hierarchy and Europeans are valued more. This has been a fact throughout its history, with the privileging of European immigration by the government. Socio-economic position also maps closely to the degree of European ancestry.
In a similar dynamic to Mexicans in the US, criminality is associated in the popular imagination with Colombians and Peruvians, despite evidence showing to the contrary, principally because of these countries involvement in the drug trade. This is even reflected in the language used to describe a non-national living in the country. If you are from the United States or Europe, you are an “extranjero” (foreigner). If you are from Latin America, you are an “inmigrante”. It is not uncommon to hear someone rant about immigrants and in the same conversation note with pride how there are more Europeans and Americans moving to the country.
Two factors are absent from the Chilean political context that have driven anti-immigrant movements in the US and Europe. The first is that the Chilean economy has outperformed most of its OECD peers over the last few years. Diminishing economic opportunity across the Rust Belt in the US and shrinking welfare states in Europe have provoked anxiety among the population that has transformed immigrants into competitors for state resources and jobs. Terrorism too has strengthened calls for tighter borders in the name of better security. For now at least, both these issues appear not to have a major effect on the immigration debate in Chile.
In terms of legislation, reform to the immigration system has been a goal of the past two governments of Bachelet and Piñera but no bill has passed the congress and received the president’s signature. Essentially everyone in Chile recognizes the need for a change to the current law. The immigration system is based on a decree issued in 1975 during the dictatorship and is conceptually centered around the idea of the foreigner as a national security threat but also as cheap labor. As a result, the current system allows for the due process free dismissal of a foreigner and makes immigrants dependent on their employers for the maintenance of their visa. Human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, have denounced these facts and Amnesty in particular recently launched a campaign to push for the inclusion of the rights of immigrants in any reform.
The changes to the system being debated in the current government seek its modernization, allowing for a streamlined and permissive immigration process. Unlike in other Western democracies, the current of change in Chile with regards to immigration is towards more open borders. But with an election year coming, candidates could decide to take a page from Trump’s playbook. Though the political landscape does not appears to be propitious, who knows what can happen. Political predictions are essentially worthless today.