Cristián Doña, U.S. News
Between two market stands in Chile’s capital, Gaeline Augustin, a 37-year old Haitian woman, has unfolded a piece of cloth on the street and carefully displayed two dozen winter jackets.
Back in Port-Au-Prince, Gaeline worked as a needlewoman. It was difficult to make ends meet, so she headed here. “I was told there was more money to make in Chile than in other countries,” Augustin says. “But I haven’t been able to find work.” So to get by, she sells clothes illegally on the street.
Between 2010 and 2015 – the year of the most recent data – Chile had the highest rate of immigration growth in all of Latin America, according to a recent report. Although migrants represent about 3 percent of the country’s population, their presence is becoming more visible every day, in part due to the arrival of Haitians, the fastest-growing group of immigrants.
Last December, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced that updating the country’s immigration law was among her priorities and underlined that Chile is “an open and welcoming country and will keep being one.”
By doing so, she joined a well-established club of South American leaders who have promised to push for more open, progressive immigration laws. During the past 15 years, in part in response to how its own immigrants were being treated abroad, South America took bold steps to extend the rights of regional migrants and make it easier for them to cross borders. Since a residence agreement in 2002, for example, citizens of countries and some associated states in Mercosur, the regional trade block, can reside and work legally within the block. In recent months, countries like Ecuador and Peru have passed immigration laws meant to ease restrictions.
But there are some indications that the momentum toward open borders is no longer uniform in South America. Recently, experts say, some politicians in the region have turned to other priorities or have embraced a hardline stance on immigration that echoes the debates further north.
In Chile, for example, Bachelet’s vision never made it to a bill in Congress, and former president Sebastián Piñera, the current front-runner in this November’s presidential election, has already made it clear that he would toughen immigration policies if elected. “Chile must be open to receive migrants who help our country develop, but must absolutely close its frontiers to narco-trafficking, crime, contraband and illegal immigration,” he recently said in an interview with a Chilean newspaper, adding that migrants who committed serious crimes should be deported.
Many Chileans share his views. A June poll by a non-profit academic foundation on public policies, for example, found that 57 percent of Chileans believe the country should take harsher measures to exclude illegal immigrants and 63 percent think immigrants steal jobs from locals.
“There is a similar trend in South America that there is in the United States and Europe,” says Cristián Doña-Reveco, sociology faculty member at Diego Portales University in Santiago. “Immigration law is going to be controversial because some people believe that migrants are criminals. That’s one of the reasons it’s become so difficult for Chile to propose a law – the debate in an election year is going to be tough.”
Similar sentiments are stirring in Brazil. In May, the government passed immigration legislation that gives immigrants the same rights as Brazilians and makes it easier to access to public services, but critics say the bill was watered down after President Michel Temer vetoed more than a dozen sections, including amnesty for illegal immigrants. The move came as thousands of Venezuelanscontinued to pour across the border into Brazil, sparking a backlash. According to the Guardian, one mayor even suggested that the country close its border to avoid new arrivals.
In Argentina, which continues to be the top destination for migrants in South America, President Mauricio Macri worried immigration proponents in January, when he issued a decree making it easier to deport immigrants and restrict their entry. In a press conference, he echoed U.S. President Donald Trump by saying Argentina – once believed to have the region’s most progressive immigration laws – could no longer allow immigrants to commit crimes and spoke of the need to put Argentines first.
“The ideas about regional integration have changed and now main states like Brazil and Argentina are looking more toward extra regional partners to have investment and trade agreements with,” says Juan Artola, a researcher at the Institute for Migration Policies and Asylum at Tres de Febrero National University in Buenos Aires. “The social aspects and rights aspects that were more important five or 10 years ago are being neglected. It’s a social mood. The governments are giving priority to other matters.”
In Chile, the recent wave of immigration isn’t expected to recede anytime soon. Despite slowing economic growth and rising unemployment, authorities predict the numbers of immigrants will keep increasing – in part because its economy is better off than some of its regional peers. In 2016, nearly 49,000 Haitians entered Chile. While the country also welcomed large numbers of Peruvians and Bolivians, Haitians stand out both because they don’t speak Spanish, and because of their African heritage.
Prior to their arrival, which picked up in 2014, many Chileans weren’t accustomed to the presence of people of African descent, says Diego Acosta, an associate professor of European and migration law at the University of Bristol.
So far, the reaction to the presence of Haitians has been mixed. While there are many migrant organizations and Chileans trying to help them cope, in some of Santiago’s streets, the tension is evident. Last May, a young Haitian was stabbed and severely injured at a fisher’s market by a Chilean coworker who accused him of coming to “steal jobs.” In Población Los Nogales, the downtown neighborhood where Augustin sells her jackets, there is conflict, too.
At 52, market vendor Cecilia Salinas complains because every day new immigrants like Augustin come to sell their products without paying for the permit required. In this poor neighborhood, as in many others, housing rentals have soared – a trend experts link to landlords who inflate the prices to take advantage of foreigner’s desperation. Salinas is outraged because, she says, “they don’t want to rent to Chileans at a normal price anymore.” She blames migrants for the growing lines at the local health center, and even for her youngest daughter’s lower grades at school.
“In my daughter’s class there are six Haitians kids. They don’t go to study, they go for the food. My girl was a good student and now she doesn’t even want to go to school,” she says. “And it’s not only the Haitians. It’s the Peruvians, the Colombians, the Bolivians. They all come here and corrupt our country.”
But not everyone believes that foreigners shouldn’t be let in. Henry Fuentes, who has worked at this market since he was 5, says he doesn’t mind the migrants. The 38-year-old has even learned some Creole to communicate with them. And he doesn’t believe the claims by some that immigrants steal jobs.
“I am not against having them working here, everybody needs a job,” he says. “If you know how to do your job properly, there is no reason their presence will harm you.”