SANTIAGO — Official figures show that from January to August, 5,147 immigrants have entered the country illegally. Arica is one of the most affected cities; according to its mayor, 300 people enter every day “through non-authorized crossings.” The government announced that those who entered illegally will be removed from the country.
In March, Chile closed its borders in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The closures were extended to Oct. 25. Therefore, all non-resident foreigners are currently prohibited from entering the country. This has caused major migratory flows at non-authorized border crossings, especially in northern Chile.
Interior Undersecretary Juan Francisco Galli toured the region of Tarapacá during the first week of October to survey the situation. He said that those who have entered surreptitiously will be subject to removal. “We have to strengthen the border monitoring system to anticipate what is happening.”
The migratory crisis has been a major issue the past few years. The National Institute of Statistics estimates the migrant population residing in Chile to be 1.5 million. According to data from the Immigration Department, the majority of the immigrants that have entered the country in the past year are Venezuelan.
Foreign Minister Andrés Allamand, recently said that “it is estimated that the migratory flow will exceed 500,000 people, as a result of the devastating effects that the pandemic has had in neighboring countries.”
Crisis Amid Processing of Migration Law
The current Migration Law dates back to 1975. A reform that seeks to modernize it has been in Congress since 2013. In September, the senate started voting on its more than 200 articles. The debate has been long and tense, as disagreements between the administration of President Sebastián Piñera and the opposition sectors have been difficult to resolve.
During the processing of the bill, opposition senators presented several modifications. One of the proposals was to give illegal immigrants 90 days after the promulgation of the law within which to regularize their situation.
Piñera warned that if the proposal was approved, he would veto it. However, it was not passed by the Senate. Instead, one of the approved articles establishes that only those foreigners who entered before Sept. 1, 2019 will have the option to regularize – but within 180 days after promulgation of the law, not just 90.
Galli told Agricultura Radio that the opposition’s proposal is actually the cause of the high number of illegal crossings in the northern regions: “It generated a window of opportunity … This is especially serious, because given that borders are closed, these people can only enter through unauthorized crossings.”
The migration bill was revised by the lower house, which rejected 10 modifications the Senate made. The bill now moves to a mixed committee to resolve any lingering disputes between the two houses of Congress.
Galli urged Congress to rush the processing. “It is important to move forward with this new Migration Law because it will mean that only those who have requested their permission of residence in their country of origin will be able to stay.”
Humanitarian and Health Crisis?
Illegal migration has been a problem for the country for years in terms of economic resources, but the coronavirus pandemic adds a whole new dimension. Defense Minister Mario Desbordes said that the quarantine residences in the north for Covid-19 patients are currently maxing out because of the migratory flow.
According to the latest Epidemiological Report by the Ministry of Health, the city of Arica has the second highest number of active cases in the country. Its mayor, Gerardo Espíndola, told CNN Chile that 300 people per day are illegally entering the country through Arica. “It is a complex situation. Especially in a city like ours, where we have not been able to lower the Covid-19 positivity rate … It’s difficult to administer both problems at the same time.”
Espíndola said that there is “a mafia” operating behind the hundreds of immigrants that enter the country every day. “People don’t cross on their own. Human-trafficking has been made more evident by the Venezuelan crisis, but it is something that we commonly see in Arica.”
Another northern region that is being affected by illegal crossings is Tarapacá. According to its health secretary, there are 606 foreigners currently staying at quarantine residences, and 44 of them have tested positive for Covid-19. A report by Cooperativa Radio shows that there are hundreds of others simply living on the streets, waiting to be admitted into one of the transitory residences of the region.
Recently, the mayor of Iquique, the capital region, sent a letter to President Piñera, asking for help to stop the illegal crossings. “The state must protect our borders and safeguard our security … it seems inconceivable the way our border control has been violated.”
The numbers given by the Ministry of Interior show that during August, 80 percent of those who were detained for illegal crossing, were Venezuelan. Galli said that during September “the information we have reaches 90 percent for Venezuelan citizens.”
Fernanda Gándara is currently finishing her journalism degree at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. She’s passionate about writing, environmental issues and women empowerment. You can find her on Twitter as @FerGMarchant