Tue, 26 Sep 2023

By Maxine Lowy

In a house of a verdant upscale neighborhood of Santiago, Chile, Nancy accompanies a retiree. In Venezuela she was a nurse, until basic materials- alcohol, cotton, syringes, and food to prepare healthy meals for patients- became scarce, affecting her capacity to adequately care for patients. For lack of gasoline, public transportation was spotty, obliging her walk up and down her city's hilly streets to get to work. When paychecks became unpredictable, she reluctantly decided it was time to leave. With her two pre-teenage children, they embarked on a 10-day journey to a destination three thousand miles to the south: Chile, where relatives there assured her life was far better. But these were times of pandemic, and the border was closed. Upon passing over to Chilean soil, she self-denounced, as the National Immigration Services advices, as first step to seek humanitarian refuge. She has been waiting two years for a response. Nancy's story, with many variations, is the story of countless thousands.

Control, arrest and expel are words that, once in Chile, Nancy began to hear in ever-increasing stridency, with crime and migrant configured as one and the same, striking fear in her and mistrust of immigrants in Chilean society at large. In the first five months of this year, proposals to implement measures reflecting a criminalizing bias towards migrants, have been raised across the board, from either side of the political spectrum.

In late February, the government of President Gabriel Boric, who during his electoral campaign pledged to humanize the migrant situation, signed a decree to deploy the armed forces to the porous northern border with Bolivia and Peru, where thousands of immigrants cross over to Chile. The law achieved congressional approval after negotiations with the right, in which the executive branch agreed to create special military task groups to patrol the border.

Chile does not have an entity exclusively dedicated to immigrant control like the United States Customs and Border Protection agency. Members of the civil Investigations Police (PDI) inspect and stamp travel documents. Identity and immigration status checks of foreigners were practically nonexistent in Chile until 2018 and never were massive or frequent. Previously, in 1997 and 2007, an estimated 45,000 and 50,000 undocumented persons, respectively, were granted amnesty to enable them to legalize their existence in the country.

In this context, the measures to crack down on migrants can be described as a radical shift. When, in mid-March, a unanimous vote of the Chamber of Deputies approved the modification of a law to administratively facilitate the deportation of foreigners, Interior Minister Carolina Toha expressed the reasoning behind it: "... coming to Chile to seek new opportunities [...] does not open the door to those who come here to commit crimes."

This presumption that immigrant is synonymous with criminal was installed during the second administration of President Sebastian Pinera (2018-2022). Repeated affirmations by the chief executive, the Interior and Public Security Ministry and other officials to the effect that Chile had "to put its house in order," "deal with the foreign criminals" and differentiate between "good and bad migrants" were amply covered by the communications media. Such expressions have inflamed xenophobic incidents such as the one in September 2021 when people in Iquique burned the meager belongings of an encampment of Venezuelan migrants, while yelling "Illegals get out!" The closure of borders during the pandemic also helped consolidate the idea that the virus was brought in by foreigners.

The climate of hostility emerged after mostly Venezuelan migrants were streaming towards Chile or had already settled in the country. President Pinera encouraged them to traipse southward to Chile in February 2019, when he climbed up onto a stage in the Colombian border town of Cucuta to proclaim his "solidarity with the struggle of the Venezuelan people to recover their democracy."

Shortly thereafter, the welcome turned into animosity not only in discourse but, concretely, in immigration policy management: no more visas were issued by Chilean consulates in Venezuela and Haiti, practically nil recognition of refugee status, lengthy bureaucratic delays to obtain residency authorization, as well as the construction of 3-feet deep trenches along the borders with Bolivia. Moreover, the Democratic Responsibility Visa, introduced by the Pinera government to facilitate the entry of Venezuelans, began to be denied. On one single day- November 11, 2020- the Foreign Relations Ministry turned down approximately 90,000 requests for that type of visa, through messages sent by electronic mail. Although the government attributed it to "cybernetic closure," some observers still wonder whether an intentional human factor might also have played a role. A month after the systematic denial of those visas, Venezuelan migrants began pouring in through unauthorized entry points and the flow has barely diminished since then.

Gabriel Boric's presidential election campaign raised expectations among immigrant rights advocates for a change towards more humanitarian immigration policy, with a focus of rights, that would approach the issue "from an integral perspective," as stated at the time by his platform. Instead, there has been a hardening of controls without addressing the situation of thousands whose requests remain bureaucratically backlogged, making them vulnerable to exploitation in terms of work, housing and other aspects of their daily lives.

Carolina Stefoni, Tarapaca University sociologist who specializes in immigrant issues and supported Boric's candidacy, acknowledges that "it is hard to keep defending him." Stefoni notes that not only have measures implemented by the previous government been continued but others not taken by Pinera have been enacted.i She is particularly concerned about the proposal to arrest migrants who cannot prove their identity. "That is very, very grave. It is quite a setback in terms of rights. All international treaties enshrine as a principle that irregular immigration is not a crime. This measure would transform it into a crime."

For immigrant rights advocate Eduardo Cardoza of the Movimiento Accion Migrante, an Uruguayan who immigrated to Chile 30 years ago, "There is inertia regarding the approach that Pinera installed as of 2018. The narrative has not changed and they perpetuate the national security focus."ii That a progressive government and one from the right adopt similar immigration policy - not only in Chile but globally- he attributes to the following: "Because a rights focus policy implies a human security focus which is different from the national security focus we have in the region. What's behind it is the construction and utilization of immigration for political purposes as a factor that generates fear."

Delving in greater depth on the element of utilization, sociologist Stefoni notes that, in part, the situation arises from economic and social globalization processes that generate significant inequalities. "It's the scapegoat mindset by which someone is made to pay the costs of globalization. Someone must be to blame for all this. That's where the migrant comes in. We are made to believe that migrants have taken all the jobs, have clogged public services, migrant children occupy all the available slots in the schools, and public health facilities can't keep up because of the demand from immigrants. The setback in public policy is generating poverty but this is due to political decisions not the influx of immigrants."

El Desconcierto

It is important to note that the tough new immigration policies do not take aim at all immigrants. Europeans, for example, are not required to show a passport or visa. As Stefoni points out, "The global tendency is to prevent mobility of groups deemed undesirable. Walls that are both physical and symbolic are built to keep out certain migrants who are perceived as poor, racialized and criminalized."

In his pro bono immigration law practice attorney Tomas Greene sees up close up the tangible impact of today's migrant policy.iii He see it in the anguish and vulnerability caused by visa applications that go months and even years with no reply. "I think the previous government was very aggressive. During the entire government we engaged in a constant battle for the defense of human rights of migrant people. Today, "says Greene, "I see inaction, an omission by this government with the exception of children to whom they are giving visas. But I don't understand why the government fails to publicize that children can apply for visas. Why is it so low-profile? Could it be that they don't want the right to jump up and criticize them? I don't know."

Another example Greene points out is a residency registration plan announced by the government. This enables PDI officers who detect people entering Chile through unauthorized border crossing points to register their name, personal information, and assign them an identity number. But the plan has not been extensively implemented and this lawyer has seen cases of people who enter together, in which one is registered while the other is not.

Greene emphatically states that such arbitrary actions as well as the delays are not due to individual personnel decisions. He attributes them to policy instructions set from above. But I fail to understand the intention of doing nothing and leaving people indefinitely waiting in an unregularized state."

Regionally, some countries have found solutions that recognize migrants' urgent needs. Argentina admits Venezuelans under the visa of Mercosur (of which Chile is no longer a member) and grants temporary residency to enable them to work and carry on a normal life. Colombia undertook a regularization process that benefited more than 2 million people. And in Brazil documentation requirements were eased for Haitian migrants. "In exceptional situations like what people live in Venezuela, it is appropriate to adopt measures that are exceptional or more flexible," comments Greene.

Digging trenches and patrolling the border with soldiers, according to these experts, will not halt entry through unauthorized crossing points. The Atacama Desert - which looks the same from either side of the invisible demarcations that the nations have traced to define their territory- is vast. If people are prevented from entering from one place, they will seek other, more dangerous places to enter, because what drives them to traipse southward is more powerful than their fear, the experts say.

But a change in immigration policy requires something more complex: a shift in the way of thinking. "When we speak of an "immigration crisis," what exactly is in crisis?" asks Carolina Stefoni. "Is it a country that received an avalanche of people? Or is there a critical humanitarian situation that people want to leave behind? I think it is the second. And if so, it is a crisis involving human beings who lack a system to protect them, lack a place in which to project their lives. Then, the solutions must be about providing that protection and giving a real opportunity for a new life."

Meanwhile, Nancy continues to wait. "I live suspended in time because legally I do not exist here.".iv To the Chilean lawmakers and officials who might call her a criminal for living and working without permission, she replies: "We are mothers and fathers who struggle for a better future for our children. Put yourselves in our place."


i Conversacion con Carolina Stefoni, 14 abril 2023.

ii Conversacion con Eduardo Carroza, 18 abril 2023

iii Conversacion con Tomas Greene, 7 abril 2023

iv Conversacion con Nanci G., 11 mayo 2023

Source: Pressenza

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