How will Chile's President-elect Bachelet tackle immigration reform?

Immigration is an increasingly contentious issue in Chile. During her first term, Bachelet passed a general amnesty that benefited nearly 50,000 foreigners.

Luis Hidalgo/AP
Chile's President-elect Michelle Bachelet talks with journalist during a press conference in Santiago, Chile, Monday, Dec 16, 2013.

Seven years ago, Elcira Aro and her son left Peru, where she worked as a secretary and later as a street vendor, to find work in Chile. As a single mother, she struggled to scrape together the money to send her son to college.

“I came [to Chile] to get stability for my son,” she says, as she eats lunch near her work cleaning houses in the upper-middle class Santiago neighborhood of Providencia. “I had to make my son a professional, and I’ve achieved that.” Aro’s son is now an industrial engineer.

Aro is just one of the many immigrants who arrived in Chile over the past decade, a period in which the country’s immigrant population has nearly doubled. Now with President Michelle Bachelet’s reelection on Sunday and pending immigration legislation, the realities faced by those hoping to immigrate to Chile could soon change.

Chile has become a hot spot for immigration due to its economic stability and flexible rules allowing people to apply for work and permanent residency visas, says Daymler O’Farrill, an economist who studied immigration to Chile while working at FLACSO, a Latin American think tank. People from Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Argentina come seeking higher salaries, lower crime, and greater economic stability. 

But, echoing age-old anti-immigration rhetoric from around the globe, opponents say the new arrivals are taking away key jobs, putting downward pressure on wages, and causing increased crime.

In an opinion poll conducted by Santo Tomás University that included five cities in northern Chile, 59 percent of those surveyed said that immigration is negatively affecting the country; 76.4 percent wanted more restrictive immigration legislation. The cities polled included Antofagasta, which witnessed soccer-related street fights between Colombian immigrants and Chileans this fall that resulted in an anti-immigrant march there.

Aging population, low birth rate

President-elect Bachelet has said she plans legislation that shifts the focus from “security and controlling immigrant labor” to “inclusion, regional integration, and rights.”

Her opponent, Evelyn Matthei, who garnered 38 percent of the vote, took a harder line. In a speech in Antofagasta in October, she said immigrants should be required to have work visas before they enter the country in order to “see what their criminal histories are.” Immigrants who commit crimes in Chile “should be left on the border and never allowed to return," she said. 

Mr. O’Farrill says claims that immigrants contribute to unemployment and crime rates are unfounded. He says immigrants come to “take care of Chile’s needs.” Chile has an aging population and low birth rate: In 2012, the country recorded 14.28 births per 1,000 persons, down from over 17 in 2,000 and well below the global average of 19.15. As a result, the country’s labor force is shrinking, and new arrivals fill the gaps, O’Farrill says.

Immigrants from Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador work primarily in retail, health care, and domestic employment. Those from Argentina and Spain tend to work as professionals or engineers in the country’s mining sector, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Aro came to Chile with only a tourist visa and found work upon arrival, which helped her application for a temporary work visa. In 2007, she received a permanent visa when Bachelet declared a general amnesty for foreigners residing in the country. She granted the amnesty in order to put a stop to the abuse of undocumented workers by their employers and also to improve relations with neighboring countries, whose governments were pressuring Chile to regularize the immigration status of their emigrants.

That amnesty benefited 50,000 people, 32,000 of whom were Peruvian, and it’s a point of contention for many Chileans. Jorge Figueroa Cruz, president of Chile’s Committee to Defend National Sovereignty, calls it a “perdonazo”—a “huge pardon”— which has led to lower wages and more drug trafficking in Chile.

A bill currently before Congress aims to update immigration legislation, which dates back to 1975. The bill focuses on the need for workers in certain sectors: It would recognize more foreign diplomas, would require foreigners to apply for a work visa before arriving, and would add a new visa category specifically for temporary workers.

Idenilso Bortolotto, vice-president of the Chilean Catholic Immigration Institute, says the requirement that foreigners have work visas before entering is based on Canada and Australia’s immigration laws, a change which is largely supported, especially in the north.

Yet, “Chile isn’t like Canada or Australia,” Mr. Bortolotto says. “Chile has long borders, so, no matter what the legislation is, people will enter the country, and they’ll enter without documents. … It’s better to have legislation that fits the regional context.”

Rodolfo Noriega, founder and president of the Committee of Peruvian Refugees in Chile, says the temporary workers’ program would also lead to an increase in undocumented immigration.

“When you decide to migrate, to break those strong ties to your family, to your customs, it’s a clean break, as you think this will be for a long time, not for a short time,” Mr. Noriega says. He predicts that immigrants would come with temporary visas and then stay without permission.

Aro, for one, says she’s here to stay. She’s saving money to buy a house, which she calls “a long-overdue goal,” and then she wants to retire. After seven years here, she’s home in Chile.

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