SANTIAGO — Anyone visiting Santiago in early 2015 and returning today, would notice a different human landscape. The population's relative racial homogeneity has become enriched with Peruvians, Colombians, Venezuelans, Bolivians, Ecuadoreans and Dominicans, and most visible of all, Haitians who do not speak Spanish and have dark skin. Some 100,000 people from Haiti arrived in 2016, which certainly makes a difference to a country where it was said until recently that "we're not racists because there are no blacks here."

Chile's attraction to continental migrants is further evidence of its recent economic success. With an annual per capita income of over $20,000 and a jobless rate of 6.5%, it has become the region's wealthiest country. Birth rates are in decline and the population is aging, which usually signals a country's need to import workers. It is already noting a shortage of professionals in healthcare and technology, but also of agricultural workers.

The Chilean government should be welcoming migrants, as it has so far. Its policy until recently was to allow Latin American and Caribbean travelers to enter through a 90-day tourist visa, granted upon arrival. Once inside they would usually find it easy to obtain temporary work permits. But this is about to change.

Between 2007 and 2015, migrant numbers increased by 143%, and authorities estimate the country is hosting a million migrants today, one third of whom are thought to be undocumented.

This spike is being keenly felt and Chileans are starting to react like voters of U.S. President Donald Trump or the National Front party in France. A recent poll by the National Human Rights Institute found that seven out of 10 respondents favored entry restrictions, with half saying foreigners were jobs from Chileans and 30% declaring they were "whiter" than other Latin Americans.

The new, conservative government of President Sebastián Piñera has thus decided to impose some entry restrictions. Piñera, who was elected president a second time in December 2017, declared early on that tourists could no longer apply for temporary work permits, and anyone seeking work should apply, before arriving, for the new "opportunities" visas. These are to give following a points system that favors more qualified applicants with skills the country needs. There would be a preferential visa, for example, for graduates of the world's top 200 universities.

These measures do help plan the migratory flux and manage the supply and demand in migrants. Chile's previous policy, dating from 1975, was for a time when there was practically no immigration to Chile. New measures do include a legalization amnesty for undocumented foreigners, thought to number about 300,000, who arrived before April 8.

Still, the government's treatment of Haitians smacks of racial discrimination and requires fine-tuning. While citizens of Latin American and Caribbean states can travel here without a visa and enter with a 90-day permit, Haitians need a visa and can stay 30 days. This also applies to Dominicans, who already needed visas under the first Piñera government (2010-14). These are two countries with larger Afro-Caribbean and black populations.

Germany has seen a similar situation.

The only economic justification for discriminating against the Haitians is that they are poorer and less educated than other Latin American arrivals, and engage in low-paid, manual jobs while pushing wages down in those sectors. And yet in Chile, Haitians have shown themselves to be hardworking and responsible, and as good as or better than similar workers from other regional countries.

And their current numbers, about 100,000, leave them far short of being the biggest migrant group. These are presently Peruvians (250,000), Colombians (130,000) and Bolivians (120,000). Haitians constitute 1% of Chile's population, and 6% of all migrants. These are marginal rates compared to other OECD countries like the United States, United Kingdom or Canada.

Ongoing protests for a new immigration law — Photo: Luis Vargas/ZUMA

The problem is perhaps more in the sudden increase than in total numbers. Germany has seen a similar situation in recent years with the arrival of Syrian refugees. And the negative public reactions reflected in elections there are now discernible in Chile, which may have influenced the government's calculations.

This is a "First World" problem with which Chile was unfamiliar until fairly recently, though racism is a longstanding cultural trait it seems. While 60% of the population is of mixed indigenous and European stock, the great majority of Chileans insist they are white. Historically the country has largely ignored and even despised its Indians, and its latent racism is now finding an outlet with Haitians, even if Chileans are loath to admit to this attitude.

The Piñera government seems to be courting the votes of certain sectors, even as it undermines its own project to build a modern society integrated into the world, and creating wealth and opportunities for all.

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