Survey: Chile Sees Notable Drop in Support for Expanding Immigration | Best Countries

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But even as sentiments in Europe and the U.S. typically garner much of the attention surrounding such dilemmas, the nation that’s taken the sharpest negative turn in opinion on openness to additional immigration sits on the western side of South America, one survey shows, and has been grappling with an influx of people from another country on the continent.

In Chile, only about 42.5% of respondents to the recently released Best Countries survey agreed with the statement, “My country should be more open to immigration.” That is a 15-point drop from 2022, when 57.5% agreed, and marks the largest decline among the 36 countries surveyed in U.S. News’ annual analysis of global perceptions. Just five years ago, Chileans’ share of support for more immigration was around 70%.

Experts say the attitudinal shift suggested in the data reflects the reality on the ground, where the growing number of immigrants in Chile has been met with more restrictive policies. Similar to what’s happening in Europe, analysts say conservative political parties and some citizens are blaming immigrants for rising crime and other problems.

“It’s definitely more negative now,” Miguel Pérez, director of the school of anthropology at University Diego Portales in Santiago, says of Chileans’ views about immigration. “The immigration rates in Chile have increased dramatically over the past 10 years.”

The spike is evident in the data: A recent analysis by the Migration Policy Institute found that Chile’s share of immigrants in the population rose from 1% in 1992 to about 9% by 2020, accounting for 1.46 million immigrants. That number inched closer to 1.5 million in 2021, according to the most recent data available directly from the country’s National Institute of Statistics. The country’s foreign population approximately doubled from 2017 to 2021.

Another survey indicates that Chileans are indeed not happy about the spike. Recent data from Vanderbilt University’s AmericasBarometer survey – which was shared with U.S. News and is not yet published – shows that 56% of Chileans agreed in 2023 that the government should offer social services to immigrants. While still a majority, the percentage fell 15 points from where it stood in 2018 and 2019 – a sizable shift compared with data from several other Latin American countries that were surveyed.

Chilean support has dropped even more for migrants from Venezuela specifically, according to Vanderbilt’s data. When the question was geared toward whether respondents supported providing social services to Venezuelan immigrants, the percentage of agreement in Chile decreased from 66% to 44% over the same time span.

This constitutes a “very significant decline,” says Elizabeth Zechmeister, the Cornelius Vanderbilt professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and director of the LAPOP Lab, which runs the survey. She says that decreasing support for Venezuelan immigrants has been a regional trend. But Chile’s is indeed notable. People from Venezuela – a once-wealthy country battered by economic and political crises that have fueled an exodus of more than 7.7 million people – made up the largest share of immigrants in Chile in 2020, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The country also has seen an increase in Haitian newcomers in recent years.

Chile does have a history of being more welcoming of immigrants, but public debate “has been mostly reactive, responding to changes in migration flows and political pressure” since the reign of the authoritarian leader Augusto Pinochet decades ago, says Cristián Doña-Reveco, an associate professor of anthropology and sociology at the University of Nebraska Omaha and author of the Migration Policy Institute analysis of Chile.

“I think it’s a matter of numbers,” Doña-Reveco adds, clarifying that attempts in Chile to develop immigration policy have been influenced by the “sheer” amount the country has received in recent years.

One such attempt came in 2021, when Chile passed a law reforming its immigration system for the first time in almost 50 years. The law changed visa requirements and established a process for deporting migrants who have attempted to enter the country illegally, according to legal analysis from the International Bar Association. Chilean authorities earlier this year sent armed forces to the country’s northern border to control migration flows, a move that human rights group Amnesty International described as a “militarization” of Chile’s borders.

Beyond the idea that Chileans’ less-welcoming attitude toward immigration is simply a response to the influx, analysts say migrants in the country have been blamed for crime – a common refrain which nonetheless carries little evidence of a connection.

“There is this stigmatizing discourse on immigration from the press, basically, from the media associating immigration with violent crimes, with incivilities, for example,” Pérez says.

Pérez adds that Chilean “campamentos,” a Spanish word for informal settlements, have been wrongly connected with such crimes. And because Venezuelan immigrants are associated with poverty locally, they tend to bear the brunt of the negative talk, while migrants from other countries – such as Peru – are perceived as bringing the “good kind of immigration” to a wealthy country like Chile, he says.

“I don’t think there’s any question that there has been rising levels of xenophobia,” adds Edward Murphy, an associate professor at Michigan State University with a focus on Latin America and the Caribbean. “I think that’s also contributed to a kind of right-wing reaction in Chile that’s been pretty strong lately.”

While Chile is currently being led by progressive President Gabriel Boric, the conservative Republican Party earlier this year won nearly half of the seats on a committee tasked with rewriting the country’s constitution, which has roots dating back to authoritarian rule. José Antonio Kast, the party’s leader whom Boric defeated in the 2021 election, has been critical of immigration and suggested digging ditches along Chile’s border to stop migrants.

The writing of the new constitution could influence where Chile goes from here with regard to immigration attitudes and policy, Doña-Reveco says. He notes that as part of the process, there were some debates – which he says didn’t progress – in which officials considered the idea of not giving birthright citizenship to children of immigrants in Chile.

But he adds that Chile is not the only country where there are public pressures to make immigration laws more restrictive. The U.S. provides another example, he says, but the trend is more wide-reaching.

“There’s somewhat of a negative consensus among receiving countries, both new and old,” Doña-Reveco says, “that immigration laws need to be hardened.”

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