Chile's changing demographics

SANTIAGO, Chile — Chileans are coming to terms with the fact that immigrants are here to stay.

Thirty-five years ago, Chile was a major exporter of migrants. Today it’s a chief destination for Latin Americans looking for economic and political stability.

From 2002 to 2009, immigration jumped by 91 percent, just counting the legal immigrants. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of illegal immigrants are looking for ways to settle here.

The more than 360,000 foreigners in Chile account for slightly more than 2 percent of the total population.

These are no longer the European immigrants whom Chile encouraged to come in the 19th and early 20th centuries to boost agricultural production and commerce. More than 60 percent of today’s immigrants arrived over the past 20 years from border states, mainly Peruvians (37.1 percent), Argentines (17.2 percent) and Bolivians (6.8 percent).

Chileans have given the trend a name: the “New Immigration,” referring to the flood of mainly impoverished migrants from border countries looking for work, stability and a better quality of life.

Chileans — who until 15 years ago or so rarely saw indigenous or black people walking down the street — are just starting to realize that their demographics are changing.

But this means they have to make a serious effort to tone down their underlying racism and xenophobia, fueled by the fear of losing jobs to foreigners.

“Chileans have always received the blond, blue-eyed immigrants with their arms open. Not so the dark-skinned workers from our closest neighbors,” said congresswoman Maria Antonieta Saa, who has been pushing for a new immigration bill. “Just now we are beginning to realize we live among immigrants.”

A 2008 government survey on immigrants in three regions of the country found that on average one-third of immigrants had suffered some sort of discrimination. Among Peruvians and Bolivians in the north of the country, the proportion was much higher.

The same study found that more than 70 percent of immigrants come to Chile in search of work, including Colombians like Jose.

Jose, 30, would not say his last name because he is trying to figure out a way to stay in Chile and bring his wife and two children from Cali. He arrived on a three-month tourist visa in November and already has an informal job with a friend in a cleaning company.

“In Colombia I worked selling encyclopedias, Bibles, textbooks. But here you can make money stretch much more. And you can go out on the streets without a problem, there isn’t so much violence everywhere,” he said.

Jose was hanging out that morning at a hairdresser shop owned by Marta, an elderly immigrant from Guayaquil, Ecuador. She arrived seven years ago, and by now has three sisters, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren in Chile, all with permanent residence visas.

Her small business is one of the dozens of the mainly Peruvian shops, soda fountains and restaurants, peppered with money exchanges, couriers and call centers, packed one next to the other in the area known as “Little Lima.”

But it is in the desert north — in the areas lost by Peru and Bolivia to Chile in the Pacific War in the late 19th century — where the concentration of Peruvian and Bolivian immigrants is radically changing local demographics.

“The migrant population is increasingly more visible. In Iquique, for example, you can see a Peruvian restaurant next to an Ecuadorian craft shop next to a McDonald’s,” said Carmen Torres, coordinator of the project “Citizenship and Protection of Human Rights of the Immigrant Population in Chile” and executive director of the Women’s Institute Foundation.

Although the last few governments have issued a myriad of decrees and guidelines to ensure migrant rights and access to public services, Chilean immigration law remains unchanged since the days of dictator Augusto Pinochet. When Pinochet issued Chile’s immigration law in 1975, in the early years of military rule, he had one thing in mind: keeping out potential subversives, “undesirables” and the exiles he had expelled from the country.

A conglomeration of NGOs, research centers, members of congress and academics has been pushing for changes to the law, which “gives enormous discretionary powers to government officials or employees to decide the fate of an immigrant,” said Victor Hugo Lagos, an attorney at the Human Rights Center of the Diego Portales University Legal Clinic.

For example, reuniting family members is considered a valid reason to grant visas in some cities and not in others. In some public health clinics, immigrants are required to have a Chilean ID card to receive attention.

Work contracts pose another problem. An immigrant with a work visa may apply for permanent residency after two years. But if the immigrant changes jobs, he or she must start all over again, as Ines Cuevas, a 38-year-old Peruvian from Trujillo, experienced firsthand.

In 2000, Cuevas entered Chile from the northern border, then made her way to Santiago, where she began working. But she said her employers always fired her before she completed the two years. She went from job to job as a cleaner at an orphanage and private homes for seven years before she was covered by a general amnesty in 2007.

Like Cuevas, the majority of immigrants live in the capital and, with the exception of the Argentines, most work in construction or as domestic help.

Whereas Peruvians, Bolivians and Ecuadorians come from the ranks of the urban poor, peasants and indigenous communities, Argentines — who until recently made up the largest immigrant community in Chile — are primarily professionals with work visas or are escaping their country’s economic woes.

According to the 2008 government survey, more than 90 percent of Argentine immigrants had formal work contracts, compared with 44 percent of Bolivians and 63 percent of Peruvians. As for health care, the survey found, less than half of immigrants have public health insurance and coverage is particularly low among Peruvians.

Practically all immigrants polled said their children were attending school regularly, but more than 60 percent said it was very hard to access housing. More than half, especially Peruvians and Bolivians, were living in precarious housing and sanitary conditions.

In 1998, the government issued a general amnesty to 23,000 illegal immigrants — 21,000 of them Peruvian — who were given a temporary residence for two years. Nine years later, the government decreed another amnesty to almost 51,000 immigrants, again mostly Peruvian.

The Bachelet government (2006-2010) had practically finished drafting a bill to reform Chile’s immigration law and ensure migrant rights. The current administration of Sebastian Pinera says it recognizes the need to update the legislation and respect migrant human rights, but it also wants to prevent immigrants with criminal records from entering the country and better enforce the law against illegal status.

“Our public policy should promote the regulation of migration flows to facilitate their access to state protection systems and allow for competition under equal conditions in the labor market,” said Carmen Gloria Daneri, head of the Aliens and Migration Department.