Inclusive language for exclusive migration policy outcomes

By Victoria Finn and Sebastián Umpierrez de Reguero.

An attempt to change a migration law reigning from a military dictatorship 40 years ago must be a step in the right direction, right? Not necessarily. In 2018, the newly elected Chilean government proposed a migration law, implemented a regularisation process, and introduced visas for Haitians and Venezuelans. In a recently published open access article in Latin American Policy, we evaluate Chile’s migration decisions, aligning with a worrying restrictive migration governance wave in South America. The changes, and the proposed migration law, unevenly discriminate against certain nationalities and socioeconomic standings, as well as neglect to offer long-term solutions to irregular migration (see Diego Acosta’s presentation, mins 4 to 26), thus failing to truly protect migrants’ rights.

The language and phrasing in the decrees are inclusive for migrants. Being the second right-leaning government in Chile since the return to democracy in 1989–1990, such inclusive language meshes well with consensus on migrant human rights, for example at South America’s annual regional conference on migration and in the Global Compact for Migration. However, under scrutiny, the policies aim to reduce Haitian and Venezuelan inflows to Chile, and thus we consider the decrees as restrictive migration measures. Such disguised restrictiveness is what Domenech (2013) has noted: South American countries as early as the 2000s began conforming to the global regime of migration control and targeting irregular migration, developing what he calls policies of control ‘with a human face’. The policies use inclusive language but nonetheless aim for exclusive policy outcomes.

Soon after taking office in his second term, President Sebastián Piñera introduced various migration policy changes in 2018  (image: Gobierno de Chile)

Executive power and restrictive migration governance in South America

A South American shift to more restrictive migration governance began in 2016, with Argentina’s shift in political discourse on migration during Mauricio Macri’s administration. Leaders in Argentina, Brazil and Chile, for example, started to blame immigrants for a variety of social problems, forming a link between migration and security to justify restrictive migration governance.

In Chile in 2018, the administration of Sebastián Piñera proposed a new Migration Law and implemented two migration-related executive decrees, along with a regularisation process. The decrees took immediate effect in April 2018. Regularisation was planned for July 2018 to July 2019, during which 155,000 applied, of which 85,000 individuals received their visa. The extraordinary regularisation then ended on 22nd October 2019. From an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 persons in an irregular situation, a total of 155,483 applicants enrolled, to which the government authorised 131,399 temporary visas, although the final number of visas received was excluded in the announcement.

The legislative project is still ongoing, as of June 2020. In theory, combining decree authority with a legislative initiative, the government created a win-win scenario by maintaining (or increasing) voter support, while opening an avenue for cooperation between executive and legislative branches. But using decree authority for managing migration is worrisome since executive-led migration measures lie on the legal borderline, with little or no parliamentary intervention.

Targeting Haitians and Venezuelans

Foreign-born residents in Chile comprised less than 1% of the total population in the 1990s, less than 3% in 2015 and between about 5.5 and 6.5% in 2018. Chile’s 2017 Census showed Colombia and Venezuela as new top origin countries, alongside the emerging group of Haitians, who represented about 14% of foreigners. Chile has reacted to upticks in diverse migratory flows by targeting only Haitians and Venezuelans. Such a strategy mirrors a past policy mistake: Chile had issued a similar visa in 2012, targeting those from the Dominican Republic, which failed. Instead of reducing immigration, the visa deregulated migration, generating human trafficking, irregular entry and formal labour market exclusion (also see Thayer 2019, reference below).

For the first nationality, Haitians, Chile introduced a tourist visa, complicating visiting family in Chile. It must be obtained pre-departure and requires bank statements, a legalised criminal background check, and a hotel reservation or notarised invitation letter. For those wanting to move to live with their family in Chile, 10,000 Humanitarian Visas for Family Reunification will be available; comparatively, the 2017 Census showed that more than 100,000 Haitians arrived in Chile between 2017 and 2018 alone. Lasting 12 months (renewable once), the visa seems unfit for reuniting those separated from spouses or children, being ‘humanitarian’ only in name. These visa offers, combined with a Humanitarian Plan of Orderly Return aimed at Haitians, seem to encourage Haitian residents to return to Haiti rather than bring their family to Chile.

For the second nationality, Venezuelans, the region has reacted with a variety of policies to the most extensive human displacement in South American history, numbering over 5 million Venezuelans as of June 2020. As we argue, Chile has added barriers to entry to reduce Venezuelan immigration, disguised with tactful language, calling it the Visa of Democratic Responsibility – implying it is democratic to accept migration leaving an undemocratic regime. Along with USD 30, the visa requires a passport and recent criminal background check issued from Venezuela, both difficult to obtain, given the current crisis. Such inclusive language leaves an open question: is it democratically responsible to create a visa process, where one had previously been absent, for individuals within the region who are fleeing a failing state?  


The incumbent government in Chile decided not to sign the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, yet uses the globally accepted phrase of ‘safe, orderly and regular migration’ to circumvent criticism on restrictive policy. While the implemented measures portray inclusive ideas rooted in human rights, they aim to achieve the same results as openly restrictive migration policies.

Chile’s migration measures fit within a regional shift to more restrictiveness since 2016, weakening regional integration and stepping away from advances for mobility, such as the Mercosur Resident Agreement. Choosing only select nationalities damages regional discourse focused on human rights and contrasts the liberal democratic principle of equal treatment for all. The decrees contradict prior recognition that restrictive migration policies produce ineffective results, including increasing undocumented immigration.

Safe, orderly and regular migration does not belong with restrictive policy, a focus of ‘cleaning up the house’, nor with additional entry requirements that can increase irregular migration. Chile can still seize the opportunity to update its migration law and policies with a focus on inclusiveness: establishing permanent routes to more easily gain and maintain a legal status would improve access to other services and reduce precarity in the labour market, allowing immigrants to do more safely what most emigrate to do: improve their own livelihoods for themselves and their families, while contributing to the destination country’s economy.

Reference cited without link:
Thayer, L.E. (2019). ‘Causas y consecuencias de la migración irregular en Chile’. In N. Rojas Pedemonte and J.T. Vicuña Undurraga (eds.), Migración en Chile: Evidencia y Mitos de una Nueva Realidad. (Santiago, Chile: Servicio Jesuita a Migrantes.)

Victoria Finn and Sebastián Umpierrez de Reguero are dual PhD Candidates in Political Science at the Universidad Diego Portales and in Humanities at Leiden University. Victoria analyses migrant voting, citizenship and migration governance, and Sebastián researches electoral studies, legislative politics and transnational migration. This post draws on their recent paper, ‘Inclusive Language for Exclusive Policies: Restrictive Migration Governance in Chile, 2018’, published in Latin American Policy.

The desperate journey back to Venezuela

By Alexandra Castro

In most countries around the world, the vulnerability of migrants has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. The reasons for this are several: loss of jobs the difficulty of maintaining quarantine measures due to their participation in the informal labour market, limited access to healthcare and increasing discrimination. These migrants’ family members, who remain in their country of origin, have also been badly affected since they no longer receive remittances. This is the case for thousands of Venezuelans living in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

Venezuelan migrants approach the Colombia-Venezuela border as they try to return home, July 2020 (image:

It is estimated that around five million Venezuelans have fled their home country in the past three years, due to the lack of opportunities there, the scarcity of medical supplies, the violence and the dire economic and political situation. They have arrived in neighbouring countries where, in some cases, they have been granted special permits giving them legal status to remain, and in many others they have stayed undocumented. According to the Colombian Population Census Authority (DANE) around 90% of the Venezuelan migrants living in Colombia work in the informal sector, selling goods on the streets or working in delivery.

Given the present pandemic and consequent lockdown ordered by the Colombian government, these Venezuelans have been prevented from earning a living. Consequently, they cannot afford day-to-day expenses such as housing and food and cannot send remittances home to their relatives. According to recent surveys, only 10% of Venezuelan migrants have kept their jobs during the current crisis while 95% are in need of food and 53% in need money to pay the rent. Many migrants have even been evicted from their rented rooms, despite specific rulings forbidding landlords from doing so.

As a result, many migrants, driven by despair, are now trying return home. Local authorities claim that around 2% of those living in Colombia at the beginning of the year have now gone back (more than 60,000 people). The journey home is dangerous not only due to the spread of the virus but several other factors too. These include:

1. The Colombian government has adopted multiple measures to decrease the risk of infection. Migrants wanting to return home have to ask for permission from their municipal authority and arrange their journey according to the dates and conditions it sets. However, some migrants cannot afford to wait for this authorisation so set off without it, risking criminal and administrative sanctions such as deportation and a ban on ever returning to Colombia.

2. The conditions of the journey are very challenging. Some migrants cross the country by foot exposing themselves to multiple risks including theft, sexual assault and even death. Others take buses, sometimes investing their few remaining savings in the tickets. Some local authorities claim to have no funds for financing this transportation while the national authorities have washed their hands of the matter.

3. When arriving at the border, the Venezuelan National Guard only allows a limited number of migrants across the border every three days (recent measures adopted by the Venezuelan government only allow 300 people to cross at one time at the main checkpoint and 100 at the second). This leads to bottlenecks at these entry points and migrants congregating at the border and in neighbouring cities. Some end up sleeping on the streets where they risk becoming infected with or spreading the virus. In the small border town of Villas del Rosario more than 1,000 people are reported to be waiting to cross into Venezuela. The situation has become so drastic that the Colombian authorities believe it could take Venezuelans up to six months to finally re-enter their country: there are currently around 24,000 Venezuelans waiting for the authorisation to cross. 

Venezuelan migrants wait at the border to cross back into Venezuela, Villa del Rosario, July 2020 (image:

4. Once in Venezuela, returnees are confined to quarantine in overcrowded and inadequate facilities called ‘temporary accommodation centres’. These are usually former schools without the capacity or necessary sanitary facilities to host so many people, having no water or electricity, and no medical aid. Such conditions have been denounced by local NGO’s. Returnees have to remain in these conditions for 14 days under the surveillance of the military and without face masks. When the first quarantine expires, they can travel to their home state but once there face another 14-days of quarantine.

5. On top of these challenges, migrants are being treated as traitors in Venezuela and stigmatised as responsible for the spread of the virus. They cannot work during the quarantine, which means many are left destitute having spent all their remaining money on the journey home. President Maduro has publicly called returnees ‘biological weapons’ and called on people to denounce to the police or even the army and the hospitals those who have entered the country informally and avoided quarantine.   

Without the remittances they used to send home these return migrants and their family members will continue facing severe difficulties in Venezuela: the conditions that made them leave in the first place have not gone away. As a result, they are very likely to migrate again: most will go back to Colombia, others may try their luck in other countries. With this in mind, their current return home is, for many, a worthless endeavour driven only by despair, further increasing the vulnerability of an already very fragile migrant population.     

Alexandra Castro has a PhD in law and works as a lawyer specialising in international migration and human rights. She is the founder and researcher at the International Migrations Observatory of the Universidad Externado de Colombia. She is also a researcher at the think-tank Diásporas

To stay home or go out to work? Brazil’s unequal modes of COVID-19 survival

By Aline Pires, Felipe Rangel and Jacob Lima.

The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Brazil in a context of severe economic and political crisis. Since the 2016 parliamentary coup, we have seen the dismantling of social policies and rights, which, while never fully implemented in the country, were enshrined in the 1988 Constitution known as the ‘Citizen’s Constitution’. The current government of Jair Bolsonaro has taken this dismantling further with labour reforms that have made work contracts more unstable and living conditions more precarious. The situation is made worse by the fact that 40% of the workforce is from the informal labour market.

In a country with such a vulnerable population, the pandemic does not affect everyone equally. It has a strong class bias. The key recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO) – stay at home to avoid contagion – has proved to be a privilege only possible for some. In the absence of social welfare, staying at home means, for many, not working and therefore not feeding your family. This situation is exacerbated by the necessary closing of schools, which provided the main daily meal for many children and young people from poor families in Brazil. For the middle and upper classes, social isolation and staying put has a radically different face to that experienced in the favelas, where families often share a single room, and basic sanitation and access to clean water is very limited, making hygiene extremely difficult.

Many Brazilians working in the informal economy have no choice but to travel to work to survive during the pandemic (image: Prefeitura de Itapevi on Flickr)

A large contingent of delivery app workers, housekeepers, street vendors, self-employed and other informal workers have had to continue moving around outside their homes, exposing themselves to the risk of infection and death in order, paradoxically, to try and survive. In doing so, they guarantee a certain comfort and security for those who are able to stay behind closed doors. This dynamic exposes the fragility of labour relations in the country, characterised by the normalisation of instability and the individual responsibility of each worker to maintain their own standard of living.

The speeches of the President of the Republic and Brazilian businessmen advocating the end of lockdown – due to its impact on the economy – seek to legitimise the sacrifice of thousands of lives. They stress that, for workers, the threat of unemployment and impoverishment is worse than the threat of the virus. When the population’s survival is linked to the ‘good performance of businessmen’, fatalism is inevitable.

Capitalism has always been willing to sacrifice lives for profit. For this reason, historically, it was necessary to create protective measures to regulate the buying and selling of labour. The mediator par excellence was (and, it seems, must remain) the State, acting to contain arbitrariness in the always hierarchical relationship between employers and workers, in order to guarantee dignified living conditions for the most vulnerable sectors of the population.

In contrast, in the logic of the current (necro)economic policy that informs the speeches of some government officials and businessmen, the only social security available to people in Brazil is the income they receive from selling their labour. This produces the complex scenario in which the voices that defend the opening of lockdown are both the businessmen, who take shelter in their comfortable houses, and the informal workers, who need to go out and work in order to eat.

Water deliveries continue during lockdown to those who can stay at home, Rio de Janeiro (image: Michael Swan on Flickr)

For those who are able to stay home and not travel in public spaces, we are witnessing a different kind of work pressure. Without any forewarning, many have suddenly been forced to find ways to do their jobs remotely. This can work in certain situations, for certain activities, and with certain rules and support. However, research developed by our group on remote work has demonstrated an intensification of the work day with unlimited hours, the suppression of pauses and breaks, the accumulation of functions and tasks, and the tendency of bosses and clients to consider professionals to be permanently available.

Women have been particularly impacted in these cases, as they are held responsible by society for the care of the home and family while also maintaining their jobs. The danger is that, at the end of the pandemic, the widespread acceptance of these intensified work practices – intended initially as a temporary, emergency measure – may result in them becoming permanent.

However, while businessmen and the federal government seem to be taking advantage of the crisis to implement ever more draconian policies, we are also seeing the strengthening of proposals to create new ways of securing a dignified existence for all, through the redistribution of income and the expansion of social security. Proposals for a basic citizenship income, taxation of large fortunes and demands for strengthening public services are examples of this.

We are fighting on many fronts simultaneously in Brazil, as we are faced by religious fanaticism challenging science, irresponsible populism, authoritarianism and lethal economic policy. But, while many people are anxiously awaiting the return to normality, others remind us that this normality was itself unfair and hard for the majority of the population. The pandemic also, therefore, offers an opportunity for social transformation. Instead of dealing with emergency issues to maintain or recover the previous ‘normal’, we might try to identify ways of building an alternative future – one that is more supportive, equal and sustainable than the pre-pandemic world.

Aline Pires, Felipe Rangel and Jacob Lima are researchers at the Laboratório de Estudos sobre Trabalho, Profissões e Mobilidades (LEST-M), Federal University of São Carlos, Brazil.

Migration, racism and the pandemic in Chile’s mass media

By Carolina Ramírez.

During the global COVID-19 public health crisis, mass media in diverse contexts has fuelled stigmatisation and moral judgement towards particular segments of society by holding them accountable for spreading the virus. In Chile, as in other countries, the media has focused particularly on people who apparently refuse to comply with new public norms of civility, such as maintaining a safe physical distance when outdoors, staying at home and paying attention to self-care.

In such media coverage, well-known commentators, reporters and public authorities are shown monitoring and highlighting the conduct of those living in lower-income districts. Notably, the same behavior and conduct committed in more affluent areas have not received the same level of judgement. In this context, migrants, particularly those who are racialised and poor, have been especially subjected to negative stereotyping, social control and moral judgement.

An example of this is the sensationalist reporting on COVID-19 outbreaks in cités in the capital of Santiago. Cités are communal residential properties subdivided into several rooms, which are rented out to individuals and families who usually live in overcrowded conditions. The news media highlighted in particular two cités located in the municipalities of Quilicura and Estación Central, where many Haitian migrants live. Haitians are the largest migrant group racialised as black or as afrodescendientes; they are thus particularly visible in a society where blackness is seen as something new and foreign.

Cité in Avenida La Paz, Santiago de Chile (image: Rodrigo Fernández)

When news of these outbreaks began, cameras from different television channels were quickly sent to the areas to film sensationalist material for news and morning broadcasts. Media headlines emphasised that the viral outbreaks had occurred in the ‘migrant’ and ‘Haitian community’. The ubiquity of the virus became quickly racialised, with associations being made between disease, ethnicity, race and space.

In one such report, the Santiago mayor stated that ‘what has been far more complex is achieving a cultural understanding with [the Haitian migrants]. There is no ill will on anyone’s part, but there is an understanding of what hygiene is… what healthcare is, what it means to be a carrier of a virus like this. It was difficult to make them understand’ (author’s translation). His words alluded to the fact that several cité residents refused to move immediately to a sanitary residence.

A discourse has emerged in this pandemic that, although apparently well-intentioned, is discriminatory and stigmatising. It degrades and infantilises people without giving any credit to their legitimate concerns. For example, few reports highlighted that the cité residents were reluctant to move due to fears that their belongings would be stolen, that they would be evicted by landlords or, worse, deported. Instead, by explaining the virus outbreak in terms of poor hygiene and selfcare practices grounded in apparent ‘cultural differences’, the Santiago mayor suggested that some ways of being, dwelling in and inhabiting the city are inherently linked to ethnicity and migration. This is a culturalist discourse that simultaneously essentialises and racialises a particular migrant group – a form of covert racism through which migrant experiences are made visible when confronted with situations involving informality, offence, poverty, and disease.

By emphasising otherness, this discourse omits longstanding problems such as access to housing and overcrowding, two aspects closely related to the emergence of cités. It is important to note that cités are a form of residence that have existed for more than a century in the country, and a space where Chileans also live. Moreover, such a simplistic discourse conceals the fact that many migrants do not have adequate protection or guarantees to basic services and necessities, not even in this appalling public health crisis.

Housing is a particularly discriminatory and exploitative market for migrants in Chile and an issue that has become particularly visible during the pandemic. Individuals and families are evicted daily from informally rented residences. Many migrants today are stranded in camps outside their embassies, demanding humanitarian aid to return to their countries. Many of them are effectively homeless, having lost their jobs due to the pandemic and unable to pay the rent.

In Chile, 22.2% of migrants live in overcrowded conditions compared with 6.7% of the Chilean-born population. Moreover, as several reports corroborate, immigrants tend to have a higher educational and employability level than the general Chilean population. Yet, they are more likely to work in precarious and informal jobs. These jobs usually require them to circulate into public spaces. Working ‘from home’ is not possible for this type of employment, and such workers rely on daily earnings. For many people, being ‘a “good citizen” in times of a pandemic’, to use Michaela Benson’s notion, conflicts with ‘being a good family member’. This is because supporting and feeding their families necessarily implies breaking the rules of the government-mandated quarantine in Chile.

Dominican and Cuban migrants march in protest of their treatment by the Chilean government (image:

These complex circumstances, and not migration and ethnicity per se, need to be explicitly addressed as part of the problem of containing the COVID-19 outbreak in Chile; circumstances that affect both migrants and Chileans. By seeing migration as a social problem, dominant narratives blame the ‘other’ for broader structural issues – including housing and healthcare provision. Moreover, stigmatising generalisations conceal the diversity of positions and the key roles that migrants play in society.

Indeed, the migrant workforce has become particularly visible during the pandemic. Its labour includes food distribution and delivery services, agriculture, cleaning and caring for the sick and elderly. In the health sector, recent figures indicate that 17.3% of doctors in Chile are migrants, a figure that reaches 40% in primary care (in a country with a 6.6% migrant population). Making this heterogeneity visible is crucial to identifying ourselves with (and not simply against) others. Thinking in terms of similarities and differences, relationships and social networks (rather than identities only) can help us to recognise our mutual interdependencies, as well as shared commitments and rights to a dignified life.

Public discourses about migrants grounded in problematic generalisations are naive and unoriginal, but by no means innocuous. As we know, stigma and prejudice can encourage racist acts and motivate violence. They affect our social dispositions, by promoting closed attitudes towards difference. Not only can such attitudes humiliate others, they may even put their lives at risk.

The power of these discourses lies in their omissions. First, using ‘cultural difference’ to explain others’ apparent lack of civility and irresponsibility conceals the weaknesses of a discriminatory and unequal socioeconomic model. Second, by highlighting social difference and segregation, this perspective downplays the fact that migrants’ experiences of displacement and social exclusion are also shared by a significant segment of the Chilean population. Furthermore, such discourses deny the heterogeneity of positions, roles and identities of migrants in the country – a heterogeneity that, despite efforts to conceal it, has become evident in this pandemic.


Carolina Ramírez is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies (COES), based in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Chile. This post is adapted from an article published previously in Spanish by CIPER Académico.