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Chile's changing demographics

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

“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.