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Chile's changing demographics

A flood of impoverished migrants from border countries is changing the face of Chile.

Immigrating to Chile, Peruvian
Peruvian boys wait inside a van, as their parents sell lunch trays to Latin American immigrants queueing at Santiagos' National Stadium on Feb. 5, 2008. (Raul Bravo/AFP/Getty Images)

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.