By Maxine Lowy

After four days on the road, since boarding the first bus in Machala, Ecuador, they were finally in Tacna. Lorena Zambrano and her two small children had barely slept or eaten well on the buses but now that they were about to enter Chile and reunite with her mother, their bags seemed lighter.

Her passport was current, and she was ready to show the invitation from her mother, the authorization to travel from the children’s father, return bus tickets, and a thousand dollars, all the requirements for a Chilean tourist visa were in order. However, the investigations police officer (PDI), which functions as immigration officials that control entries into the country, would not let them in. The following day she returned and the same guard asked: What is the name of your mother’s landlord?” Unable to answer the question, the official once again refused to let her enter. Lorena did not give up. On the third day, there had been a shift change and the new guard, simply stamped the passport and waved them through, allowing the weary travelers to step foot on Chilean soil and embrace her mother for the first time in two years.

This episode exemplifies,on a small scale, the discretionary, arbitrary and ever-changing immigration policy of Chile. It also illustrates the tenacity that drives people to take the decision to seek better horizons beyond their countries.

Lorena and her children journeyed 11 years ago, shortly after the inauguration of the first term of President Sebastián Piñera. Sometime earlier, her mother had been a beneficiary of the amnesty enacted by President Michelle Bachelet to normalize the legal status of thousands of immigrants in Chile.

Since then, the government of Sebastián Piñera became one of the continent’s harshest in its approach to immigration issues. Lorena Zambrano, for her part, transformed into a passionate advocate of immigrant rights, through the organization Asamblea de Migrantes y ProMigrantes de Tarapaca (AMPRO).

Selective Immigration

In the past, Chile, at the far south of the southern hemisphere, had not been an attractive destination for immigrants. Not only its geography and formidable geological features, such as the towering Andes Mountains and the Atacama desert, were challenging obstacles, but also the 17 years of military rule, did not make it a propitious place to settle down. That began to change in the mid 1990s, with the arrival of immigrants and refugees from neighboring Peru. Between 2000 and 2017 the immigrant population of Chile soared 176%, with the Peruvian and Haitian communities in the lead, with more than 249,000 and 73,000 people, respectively. In those years open borders were the norm in most South American countries. No more than an identity card was required to cross borders, especially between Mercosur countries. As of 2017 the Venezuelan immigrant community had equaled the Peruvians, and two years later, it became the largest immigrant in Chile.Today the Venezuelan community numbers more than 455,000, according to official statistics.

The growing immigrant presence positioned the issue for the first time on the political agenda, testing the principles that sustain the ethical scaffolding of the state of Chile. At present, this is can be most clearly seen in regards to Venezuelan immigrants. And Chile’s erratic immigration policy takes its cues directly from President Piñera.

In February 2019, Piñera climbed upon a stage in Cúcuta, a Colombian border town, to pueblo express “solidarity with the struggles of the Venezuelan people for the recovery of their democracy.” Shortly thereafter, Chile introduced its Democratic Responsibility visa, for the express purpose of facilitating the entry of Venezuelan immigrants. Both were interpreted as humanitarian gestures, and thousands of Venezuelans began heading south to Chile.

Repeated expressions by the president himself and Interior and Public Security Ministry officials, about “putting the house in order,” “protecting our borders,” “confront foreign criminals,” and “differentiate between good and bad immigrants,” signaled the end of a short honeymoon. In mid-April 2021, the governor of Atacama, echoed these sentiments, that criminalize immigrants, when he affirmed, “We do not want people at the service of organized crime to come.”[i]This rationale comprises the basis for Chilean immigration policy.

To control the entry of people Chile deems “undesirables,” a new policy introduced the obligation of applying for a tourist visa through a Chilean consulate, specifically, and discriminatorily, for citizens of Haiti and Venezuela. However, today, consulates in those countries have virtually stopped processing visa applications.

In June 2019, within a matter of months after the Cucuta visit, hundreds of immigrant, mostly Venezuelans became stranded on the streets and squares of the Peruvian border town of Chacalluta, when Chile closed the refugee status recognition process. However, in September 2019, before the United Nations General Assembly, Piñera again criticized Venezuela for not respecting freedom and human rights.

Throughout all 2020, refugee status was granted to just 7 persons, according to official reports. In November 2020, the Foreign Relations Ministry denied thousands of Democratic Responsibility Visas through its consulate in de Caracas. The Democratic Responsibility Visa was a mechanism introduced in 2018 for the express purpose of facilitating the entry of Venezuelans.

Tomás Greene is legal department director of Servicio Jesuita a Migrantes, with offices in Arica, Antofagasta and Santiago, founded in 2000 to “protect the dignity and rights of immigrants and refugees” by providing legal and social assistance. In light of the massive denials, which, according to Greene, are “inadequately grounded,” he says: “I believe that the goverment simply does not want to grant refugee status because that would compel it to issue visas while the refugee applications are processes. It views large migratory flows as a threat. In my view, this is highly irresponsible because it also infringes international treaties.”[ii]

Of the international humanitarian agreements signed by Chile, the 1984 Cartagena Declaration has greatest relevance for Venezuelans. Its broad definition indicates that persons who flee their countries due to “[generalized] circumstances that gravely disturb the public order” should be considered refugees. The uncertainty and difficulties for subsistence in their country qualify Venezuelan immigrants as humanitarian refugees.

In April 2021, after hearings on the regional immigration situation, the InterAmerican Human Rights Commission (IHRC) called upon states to adopt immigration policy and border management that incorporates a human rights focus. In regards to Chile, the IHRC decried “… the deportation of people with no consideration for possible need for international protection or family reunification.”

The IHRC was referring to warnings issued by government spokespeople that it would expel undocumented foreigners. In early February, the government opened bids for the acquisition of 15 planes to deport undocumented immigrants. Just the week before, a Colombian woman and a Venezuelan man died in the highland desert upon entering Chile. Despite the danger, on the same day as the announcement, more than a thousand immigrants made their way throughColchane, a village of 1600 inhabitants, where a penetrating cold at night and scorching heat in the day are common. From March 2020 to February2021, despite the pandemic, regional officials estimate that more than 15,000 immigrants passed through Colchane.

Tomás Greene notes:“They apparently think that showing people about to be expelled, boarding a plane, will discourageothers from coming. But in situations of violence and poverty, people are not easily discouraged. Obviously, we would hope everyone could enter with visas from day one, but that’s out of touch with our region’s reality. It’s a rather idealistic attitude that does not work as policy.”

Francisco Bazo, member of Movimiento Acción Migrante, has observed the climate of mounting hostility towards immigrants and harsher measures against them, with the pretext of protecting Chile’s borders. “The state of Chile has never addressed the root problems that affect the country. We see it with the repression against the Mapuche people. We saw it with the social explosion of 2019. We saw it with the recent eviction of a shantytown, where many immigrants lived. If you only respond with a heavy hand, you will foster anti-immigrant and racist attitudes.”[iii]

On April 11 the president signed a new immigration law, to replace the one enacted during the dictatorship, when Chile was not a prime destination for immigrants, and expelled 200,000 of its own citizens. The new law was ratified only after the Constitutional Tribunal, a conservative agency, struck down seven clauses. However, it retains the suspicion towards foreigners that characterized the previous law. Notwithstanding the creation of a new institution exclusively charged with administering immigration policy, other aspects of the law represent a step backwards. First, it introduces administrative measures to accelerate the expulsion of undocumented foreigners. Second, it prevents changing immigration status, for example, from a tourist to resident visa. Third, it provides a plan for legalizing immigrants whose visas expired, while leaving out the thousands who entered undocumented.

Immigration rights advocates are concerned that the new law will augment selective immigration and increase precarious living conditions of immigrants in Chile. “When you put up barriers, you only spur irregularity,” says Bazo. “Immigrants will become more vulnerable to exploitation.”

Migrants helping other migrants

In Iquique, Lorena Zambrano and AMPRO have watched migrants stream into the region unabated. During the first week after the law came into effect, her telephone did not stop ringing with calls from anguished immigrants.[iv]From December 2020 AMPRO observed immigrants traveling together in groups that included many women and children. They come walking much of thelast stretch, the 200 kilometers between Colchane and Iquique. Before crossing the border into Chile, their itinerary brought them through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, but they continue on to Chile because the other countries “don’t treat them well and there is much aggression” towards immigrants, she notes. Additionally, many have family members in Chile.

AMPROis an organization of veteran immigrants who are there for the newest arrivals. It has mobilized campaigns to obtain “everything a human being needs for a good quality life until going on to reunite with relatives:” food, warm clothes, beds, tents, medicine, diapers, even condoms. Small neighborhood stores run by immigrants who settled in the area generously give immigrants vegetables, bread and other things to eat.

The organization not only provides material assistance but also orientation and support for legal and immigration procedures. AMPRO is a bridge between immigrants and the National Human Rights Institute, the governmental agency that pursues cases in which fundamental rights are violated.On April 25, the government made good on its threat when 55 immigrants, mainly Venezuelans, boarded a Sky airlines flight to Caracas. Immigrant law advocacy groups, like Servicio Jesuito a Migrantes have filed injunctions in an effort to halt deportations.

Each person Zambrano assists evokes the memory of her own arrival. “I came here scared to death because I had never left my country. When you experience what it is like to leave, so many things happen to you, and you understand the others. I cannot allow other people to endure what I went through.” She adds, “We all have the right to live without upheaveal.”

Chronicle of a migrant

In mid January 2021, a group of people who had traveled from Venezuelans arrived in Iquique. Three members of the group were Katerine, 31, and her two young daughters. They had been on the road 15 days, since leaving Maracaibo. Five years earlier, Katerine’s husband, the girls’ father, left for Chile, where he found good work opportunities. Over the years, day-to-day life in Maracaibo became increasingly untenable. In this country that ended 2020 with 3,713% inflation,according to the Central Bank of Venezuela, her salary as a teacher did not cover basic expenses, not not even with the monthly remittences sent by her husband. Everything was scarce: one day there would be no bread, another no rice, and several days would go by before flour could be bought to make arepas. Cooking gas became a constant challenge to obtain. In recent months, she had to use ahotplate, always on guard for sporadic electric outages. Katerine became accustomed to walking several blocks to fill a large containerof water at the plaza or from a neighbor’s house, as only a thin thread of water came out of the faucets of her house.

Katerine observed as her neighbors stored their furniture with relatives, locked their houses and left. Her mother’s house was one of the few inhabited on the block. “Everyone was saying good-by,” she recalls.

Her husband, the first of the extended family to arrive in Chile, traveled in the comfort of a few hours’ flight and his passport was stamped at the airport. When Katerine decided it was time to join him, the situation had become more complex. She applied for a visa at the Chilean consulate, but never received a reply. It also had become complicated to obtain for her daughters; for every procedure, she needed a sympathetic person and an amount of money to access a bureaucratic system. At last, she heard about a “travel agency” that for US$1500 promised to take them across the Chilean border, viaBolivia.

One night in early January, Katerine and her daugthers arrived at the bus terminal. They comprised a group of 13, counting her children and the two small sons of another woman. Only one man, the brother of another traveler, formed part of the group. Following the instructions of the woman “travel agent,” she had brought only the bare essentials in a backpack, as well as a bag filled with canned food – tuna, deviled ham, crackers- and another containing sheets and towels. Before boarding the bus, the travel agent handed out face masks and facial shields.

Twice that night, they changed buses, until reaching San Antonio del Táchira, facing Cúcuta. They managed to sleep a couple hours before the guides came to get them. In the pitch darkness, their steps lit by a flashlight, they crossed a small bridge over a river. On the other shore, in Colombia,they walked along a gravel and sand trail that winded through woods. Soon they came to a clearing with a house that rented rooms to travelers. “They put the 13 of us in two rooms to sleep until daybreak. We rested, they brought us food, and we bathed.”

Such was the first day on the road. Twelve days awaited them, on buses, vans, moto-taxi, and on foot in places whose names they never heard. Once they were left in an large warehouse, where they were warned to remain still and silent, behind sheets of plastic on on side that concealed them. “It was very cold; we were freezing.”

To cross from Peru to Bolivia the group walked uphill an hour, at night. With each step, the backpack and her daughter in her arms seemed to weigh more. Katerine began to feel a pounding headache, she couldn’t breath, and she felt nauseous: symptoms of high altitude sickness. After waiting a day to stabilize, the group took to the road again before dawn.

The group had travelled 4000 kilometers and the Chilean border was in sight, but not the last frontier of their odissey. They approached the border and crossed into Chile. They had advanced 40 meters along the expanse of arid, rocky terrain, when a military vehicle appeared on the horizon. Quickly, they turned around and ran back to Bolivian territory. On the second try, before entering Colchane, the woman who had guided them from Venezuela, left. Skirting the village with its modest adobe houses, whereagreat number of immigrants milled about, they looked for van to take them to Iquique. No one would risk it from that heavily transited road. But one driver agreed to meet them at a point farther in the horizon. Following mobile phone atennas, they entered the highland desert again, the girls’ heads covered with shirts to protect them from the sun.On the other side of a hill, they breathed a sigh of relief. A van was waiting to take them to Iquique.

Today Katerine and her daughters share a house with seven relatives in a working-class neighborhood of Santiago. The girls attend school online, and in the afternoons Katerine works at a small grocery store, to send remittences to her mother in Maracaibo.

“We are not criminals,” she says. “We just want to start a new life.“

In Iquique, Lorena Zambrano, reflects on her life as immigrant. “Like horses with blinders, we only see ahead, not behind us or alongside us. Immigrants just focus on working, producing and obtaining papers. We are animals who accept the most brutal jobs, and we are not allowed to complain or raise our voices. You go through traumatic moments and no one else knows about it.”

[i] Governor of Atacama Patricio Urqueta, April 12, 2021,
[ii] Conversación con Tomás Greene, 16 de marzo 2021
[iii]Conversación con Francisco Bazo, 10 de marzo 2021
[iv]Conversación con Lorena Zambrano, 18 de marzo 2021