Chile Borders to Stay Open to Immigrants Amid Record Inflow

  • Chile’s half a million migrants are about 3% of the population
  • Government wants to update 40-year-old migration legislation

On the day that Donald Trump was sworn into office, pledging to defend U.S. borders from the “ravages of other countries,” Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said the Latin American country remains open to immigrants.

"We feel that immigration isn’t on a massive scale," Bachelet said Friday in an interview at the presidential palace in Santiago. "This can continue. We just need the people who want to come to Chile go through all the appropriate processes and fulfill all the conditions."

Michelle Bachelet on Jan. 20.

Photographer: Cristbal Olivares/Bloomberg

The number of foreigners with permanent residency in Chile has doubled in the past 10 years, reaching the highest proportion in modern times. More than 34,400 Haitians came in the first nine months of last year alone, 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.

Chile’s status as South America’s wealthiest nation is attracting thousands of people fleeing poverty or economic collapse across the continent. While there are few signs of a backlash against newcomers, tensions could mount as Chile enters its fourth year of sluggish growth.

Yet, Chile remains a newcomer to mass migration, Bachelet said. Immigrants represent about 3 percent of the population, a much lower proportion than the 12.6 percent average in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Better Life

Tensions exist "in some sectors," Bachelet said. "The problem in Antofagasta and in other cities is that they work in the informal market and employers prefer to hire migrants before others."

The government is preparing to present a bill that will update legislation that dates from Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and that treats migration as a threat. Bachelet looks at the issue from a different point of view.

"The great majority of migrants coming to Chile are people looking for a better life and a better future for them and their families," she said. "We need to make sure that if migrants are working they do so under the same rules as Chileans."

As the temporary president of the four-member Pacific Alliance, Chile remains committed to work toward the trade bloc’s goal to ensure free movement of people and goods among its members, Bachelet said. The bloc includes Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico.

"We are pushing for it, working on it; it’s not our only goal, and we are also talking about movement of students, workers, goods and products," she said.

The flow of immigrants could rise to a whole new level if the trade bloc opened its internal borders. Mexico has a population of 122 million, Colombia has 47 million and Peru has 30 million. All of them dwarf Chile’s population of 18 million, while its income per capita is more than double that of Peru and 40 percent above Mexico’s.

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