Haitians in Chile: Harsh conditions for many prompt large-scale migration to the United States
Seven years ago, Widenska Andre’s father sent him a plane ticket to settle in his adopted country, Chile, where he was part of a rapidly growing Haitian immigrant population.
Andre, 21, now has a permanent residence in the South American nation and a stable job helping migrants in the capital Santiago. Still, she was considering joining a continuing exodus of fellow Haitians from Chile to the United States.
“Who doesn’t want to live the American dream? Andre, who has six siblings living in Chile, said recently.
Because she is doing well, Andre finally decided to stay in Chile when three of her cousins, also in their twenties, embarked on the over 4,000 mile journey north.
Chile, a country of 19 million people, was previously home to many, if not most, of the thousands of Haitian migrants whose presence in a now cleared encampment in Del Rio, Texas, has staged the challenges of the immigration facing the Biden administration.
Chile has long had one of the most robust economies in the region and is also home to one of the largest Haitian diasporas in the world.
Haitians began to immigrate in large numbers to South America – mainly Chile and Brazil – following the 2010 earthquake that devastated their Caribbean country, killing tens of thousands and further weakening the country. economy of a country that has long been among the poorest in the world. the western hemisphere.
In 2012, less than 2,000 Haitians resided in Chile, according to official statistics. Since then, the Haitian presence has almost multiplied by a hundred. At the end of 2020, according to an official government estimate, more than 182,000 Haitians were living in Chile.
Abundant work and a previously relaxed visa system drew them to the country.
Most Haitians have settled around Santiago, generally residing in working-class neighborhoods, often in cramped housing. They typically held low-paying jobs in restaurants, hotels, construction, maintenance, and factories, while also working as street vendors. Even though they earned Chile’s minimum wage – around $ 430 a month – Haitians in Chile generally fared better than their compatriots in Haiti, where the average monthly wage is around $ 100.
While many Haitians in Chile struggle, others have thrived, opening businesses and being part of the fabric of Chilean society – even though they say they often face discrimination in a country where most residents. have European or indigenous roots. The influx of Haitians represented the first major black demographic presence in contemporary Chile. Unlike the United States, Brazil, and many countries in the Caribbean, Chile never had a large-scale African slave population.
A 2019 government survey found that nearly half of Haitians surveyed in Chile said they had experienced discrimination because of their race or their inability to speak Spanish. Several high-profile incidents – including the shooting death by police in August of a Haitian in the central Chilean city of La Ligua – have sparked allegations of racism.
“I would have fled to the United States by now without my husband, who loves Chile,” said Aline Phanor, 29, a Haitian nursing technician who said a dissatisfied client recently used a racial epithet and threatened of “Ruin my life.” “
She said she tried to file a complaint with the police, but the officers refused to take her statement.
Haitians in Chile have made efforts to preserve their cultural heritage. André was crowned “Miss Haiti in Chile” in 2019 in a community beauty pageant.
“There is a hidden racism in Chile, and I wanted to show a positive image of Haitian women,” said Andre, who works for a municipal migrant aid agency and is fluent in Spanish. “In Chile, people think Haitian women are ugly. When they see me and hear me, they say, “You don’t look Haitian” or “You don’t look Haitian. Which is wrong because I am Haitian and I am proud of it.
But discrimination alone doesn’t explain why thousands of Haitians have abandoned Chile in recent months to embark on extremely dangerous journeys through South America, Central America and Mexico. The economy appears to be the engine of migration.
Haitians polled in recent weeks in Chile, Mexico and Colombia say Chile’s prosperity often seemed out of reach for a variety of reasons. The challenges include language barriers (Haitian Creole and French are the official languages of Haiti); increasingly stringent visa restrictions; and the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic that has cost Chile millions of jobs, many in the service and construction sectors that are key employment hubs for Haitians.
“It was very difficult to find work,” said Jean Edelince, 36, who, along with his wife and the couple’s 2-year-old daughter, was among the thousands of Haitians heading to the United States in southern Mexico.
“And Chile is very expensive – much more expensive than Mexico,” said Edelince, who lived in Chile for four years, most recently working in a plastics factory, before heading north this year.
For several years, Haitians have left South America for the United States. But the lifting of travel restrictions in the era of the pandemic – at a time when South American economies were struggling to recover – allowed record numbers to head north this year. A major catalyst seems to have been the widespread perception that a new occupant of the White House had opened the door for Haitians.
Many Haitians have relatives in the United States, which is home to the world’s largest Haitian diaspora – over 700,000 people. Comments circulated by word of mouth and on internet discussion groups suggested that the Biden administration was allowing Haitian asylum seekers to gain a foothold in the United States, especially if they arrived at the southwest border with young people. children.
“I’ve heard that with Biden, it’s easier for pregnant women and families with children to enter the United States,” Andre said.
Unlike André, about half of Haitians residing in Chile do not have a permanent residence. They face very limited employment prospects. Many are forced to look for work in the informal sectors where employers often pay below the legal minimum wage.
President Sebastián Piñera’s center-right government – in response to an anti-immigrant backlash among many Chileans – has tightened the rules to make it harder for Haitians and other immigrants to obtain permanent residence.
“We cannot allow hundreds of thousands of people who do not respect our immigration law to continue entering Chile,” Piñera said in April 2018. “They pretend to be tourists even though they don’t. are not.”
Haitians who were once allowed to enter Chile with only a passport – and could easily find work in the previously booming economy – now must obtain visas before arriving in Chile. They also need hard-to-obtain police clearances from Haiti, certifying that they do not have a potentially disqualifying criminal record, before becoming eligible for residency.
“Public policies have failed to include Haitians, which is linked to the language barrier, social and professional discrimination, as well as racism,” said Waleska Ureta, director of the Jesuit Migrant Service, an organization Roman Catholic nonprofit. group.
In 2018 and 2019, Chile instituted a voluntary return program for Haitians. In total, 1,384 returned to Haiti on nine flights that the government hailed as a “humanitarian” gesture – although critics denounced what they called a barely disguised forced repatriation.
Chilean officials say they did not forcibly return Haitians to their troubled homeland, where the president was assassinated in July and an earthquake struck in August. (The United States recently deported hundreds of Haitian migrants.)
The unrealistic expectations of many migrants help explain the massive emigration of Haitians from Chile, according to the Chilean government.
“I think the difficulties they [Haitians] were faced are related to other factors but not to race, ”Alvaro Bellolio, Chile’s top immigration official, told The Times. “There were a lot of people who thought it was easy to earn big sums of money working in informal jobs, and reality shows that is not the case in our country. “
Evens Clercema didn’t make a fortune in Chile, but he appreciates his adopted homeland.
“I had some difficulty integrating into society, but it would have happened to me anywhere in the world,” says Clercema, 40, a Haitian dancer who arrived in Chile in 2009 to study sociology.
Many in Chile remember Clercema as the Haitian who, along with Chilean dancers, performed the cueca, Chile’s national dance, before then-president Michelle Bachelet in 2017.
He went on to make television appearances and now teaches dance lessons in a rented studio. He has since acquired Chilean nationality, one of 170 Haitians to have taken this step since 2010, according to the government.
“I’m lucky because living from dance is difficult, even as a Chilean,” Clercema said late last month as he greeted the students of the upper-middle-class district of Santiago in Ñuñoa. “There is racism here, but it is often associated with poverty. However, things went well for me…. I don’t want to live anywhere else. And immigrating illegally to the United States is not an option for me.
Times writer McDonnell reported from Tapachula, Mexico, and Necoclí, Colombia. Poblete, a special envoy, reported from Santiago.