Cristobal Olivares/Bloomberg

Americas’ Poor Turn South as Trump Looks to Block the Road North

  • Haitian immigration into Chile rises to over 5,000 a month
  • Government is in no rush to update 40-year-old migration law

As the U.S. and the U.K. turn on immigrants, one Latin American country is keeping its door open to the poor of the continent, and it is changing the face of the nation.

More than 34,400 Haitians came to Chile in the first nine months of the year, and the flow is rising by the month, according to the police department. Coupled with Colombians, Peruvians, Dominicans and Venezuelans, Chile is now taking in immigrants at a similar pace to the U.K., relative to their populations.

This may be just the beginning. With Europe and the U.S. likely to become more hostile toward immigration, and with no strong migration policy in place, South America’s wealthiest nation will become an even greater magnet for those seeking jobs and a better life, said sociologist Cristian Dona. While there are few signs of a backlash as yet, the numbers are rising fast just as unemployment is edging higher and wage growth edging lower.

"There is a risk of active racism in the streets," said Dona, who is an associate investigator at the Center of Conflict and Social Cohesion Studies in Santiago. "I’m worried that, with no clear policies, any populist or demagogue can fuel racist attacks."

For more on the threat to immigrants in the U.S., click here

A Caribbean restaurant in the Quilicura district of Santiago.

Photographer: Cristobal Olivares/Bloomberg

For now, few Chilean politicians see the rise in migrants as an issue. The law regulating immigration is 40 years old, and plans to overhaul the system are unlikely to get through congress before the next election in November 2017. Future flows will depend on economic opportunity, rather than government policy.

Every Hour

Sitting on a building site in the wealthy neighborhood of Las Condes, Matial Estime says he is working every hour he can to send money back to his wife in Haiti, and keeping his head down to avoid trouble with the locals.

He came after a cousin recommended Chile and crossed the Andes in August 2015. Moving was not a problem. Like most Haitians, he entered as a tourist, hoping to find an employer that would help him get a working permit and a resident visa.

"I spent months working without a contract," Estime said. "It was very hard to find someone who wanted to get me one, and every time I asked for it, the job disappeared."

A year later, half of his $600-a-month salary is spent on paying rent and he sends about a third to his wife in Haiti. He has also helped his two brothers come over, one of whom is now thinking about bringing his eldest son. The wave of immigration shows no signs of abating.

Matial Estime works at a construction site in Santiago.

Photographer: Cristobal Olivares/Bloomberg

Labor Gap

"Our country has become increasingly attractive for Haitians," said Cristobal Gamboni, an economist at BBVA Chile. "They have formed a community that is growing and that supports those who have just arrived."

Haitians keep coming even as the labor market and job creation remain weak. Chile is enduring its third year of slow economic growth, and unemployment reached an almost six-year high of 7.1 percent in July. Since then, it has fallen to 6.8 percent.

"Chile needs migration for economic and demographic reasons," said Rodrigo Sandoval, head of the government’s Migration Department. "But the economy’s capacity to process it is limited. You can already see in some areas of Santiago that the number of Haitians is exceeding what the economy can tolerate."

The flow of immigrants could rise to a whole new level if the Pacific Alliance trade bloc of Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico pushes ahead with plans to implement the free movement of labor, copying the European Union.

Mexico has a population of 122 million, Colombia has 47 million and Peru has 30 million. All of them dwarf Chile’s population of 17 million, while its income per capita is more than double that of Peru and 40 percent above Mexico’s.

‘Invaded’

Some politicians are beginning to ratchet up the rhetoric, sounding similar to anti-immigrant parties in Europe.

"Some regions of our country are being invaded by people who come from outside of Chile and who don’t come here to work or to contribute," Issa Kort, a lawmaker with the right-wing Independent Democratic Union, said last week. "Many people are being affected by crime and drug trafficking."

Still, the flow of migrants into Chile may slow by its own accord as economic opportunities dry up. Many Haitians have left their families behind and could easily up and leave if better prospects appear elsewhere.

Moreover, while the Pacific Alliance has enshrined the free movement of goods and services, it might be years before the free movement of labor becomes a reality. The issue was barely mentioned at the last Pacific Alliance summit in July.

Migration Bill

Chile’s legislation on immigration dates from 1975, just two years into Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, a time when more Chileans were leaving the country than foreigners were entering. The decision to let someone enter the country is still left to the discretion of individual police officers at the borders.

Chile’s political parties need to be leading the integration process, regulating entry and protecting immigrants, the Migration Department’s Sandoval said. But, for now, the issue is hardly on the agenda. If the inflow is allowed to go unchecked and unregulated, there is space for populism.

“I don’t know if we still have time to do something,” Sandoval warned. The state doesn’t “understand that this is urgent. The sins on immigration are paid in five, ten years’ time."

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