Venezuelan Refugees Face Growing Hostility in Chile

Opinion in the country is hardening against the plight of undocumented migrants, providing a test for its new leftist president

Venezuelan Refugees Face Growing Hostility in Chile
Venezuelan migrants cross the Bolivian border to reach Chile in 2022. (Lucas Aguayo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Before dawn breaks and the sun rises over the Venezuelan Embassy in Santiago, Rosella and Jorge Noguera stand in an ever-growing line and debate with their neighbors whose wait for a passport has been longest and most arduous. It’s the second time this week the couple has lined up in the pre-morning darkness at the embassy in Chile’s capital, having done it for their two young sons six days prior. They applied to renew their expired passports and paid the $200 fee a year and a half earlier, but only now have they received their appointments at the embassy, where they will have to pay an additional $120.

“It’s the most expensive passport in Latin America, and still it doesn’t let you in anywhere,” Rosella says.

“Empanadas! Malta! Cafe!” a vendor yells repeatedly. (“Malta” is a type of soda popular in Venezuela.)

Standing next to the Nogueras, Daniel Cabrera also applied to renew his passport in Chile last summer but, by February, he thought he could get the document sooner by returning to Venezuela and seeking it back home. (Daniel asked that his real surname not be used for security purposes. “They have ears everywhere,” he says.) His wife of five years and infant daughter are Chilean and he holds Chilean residency but, like almost everyone in this line, he cannot renew his visa and documentation without a valid passport. Yet returning from one of Latin America’s most affluent countries with a Chilean family, Daniel says Venezuelan police, suspecting he had money, organized a fake arrest, beat him and held him captive for five days until he paid $3,000 in “bail.”

His disappearance traumatized his wife, Daniel says, and the journey was for naught. Daniel got his appointment in Chile first, so he flew back via Colombia; in an ironic twist, he couldn’t fly out of Venezuela on an expired passport (his lapsed two years ago). Despite the seriousness of the situation, Daniel tells the story casually, and the group laughs as though it were just another typical week in Venezuela, roaring that his wait for a passport indeed seems to have been the worst.

Even though they arrive at 5:30 a.m., Rosella, Jorge and Daniel are far from the first to show up. They stand not on the street of the embassy but midway down the long block around the corner. Venezuelans with appointments have been camped out on the ground from midnight, sleeping on sheets, mats and cardboard boxes to ensure they’re serviced in the morning. Almost all hold a folder with the necessary paperwork carefully arranged, lest they have to come back another day and extend their states of limbo.

In the daytime’s debilitating heat, migrant children and the elderly stand full days outdoors, with no access to public restrooms. Those unwilling or unable to pay for a nearby toilet have been known to defecate in neighborhood streets and alleyways.

As economic crisis and political instability continue to wrack Venezuela, its languishing bureaucracy is failing the more than 7 million migrants and refugees who have fled the near-failing state — causing ripple effects in host countries like Chile. With hundreds of people lined up every day, local residents say the noise level, crowding and smell have become intolerable.

“It’s horrible,” says Alberto Arce, 59, who lives on the block of the embassy. “It’s been like this for a long time, but the past year is especially bad.” Alberto recognizes the situation is not the migrants’ fault and understands they can’t control their country’s bureaucracy, but he’s still frustrated that their plight has affected his quality of life.

Yet not all his neighbors share his generous assessment of the migrants. Walking past a group camped out on the ground in her flowing purple dress, pink-tinted sunglasses, wide-brimmed black sun hat and ring-covered fingers, Delia Rodriguez, 77, complains that “the worst of Venezuela has gotten here.” She says she has reached her limit with new arrivals. “It’s like a drama here at the embassy, and there are neighborhoods that you can’t go anymore because they are going to assault you or steal your phone,” she says.

This everyday occurrence outside the embassy has combined with a massively growing undocumented Venezuelan population — of shifting demographics — to strain relations not just with the upper-middle-class community to which Alberto and Delia belong, but with Chilean society at large. A growing anti-migrant, and especially anti-Venezuelan, sentiment has taken root in a country once seen as a beacon of prosperity and opportunity for migrants in the region.

Anti-Venezuelan feelings weren’t always this strong. When Daniel first arrived in Chile six years ago, he says he was welcomed with open arms. Chileans maintained goodwill for Venezuelans, who had accepted Chilean political exiles fleeing their country’s 1973 coup and the 17-year iron-fisted dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. The internationally acclaimed writer Isabel Allende, for example, whose father was a cousin of Salvador Allende — the socialist president overthrown by Pinochet — found safe harbor in Venezuela for 13 years.

At the time, migrants from across Latin America flocked to Venezuela, which sat atop the world’s largest proven oil reserves and was the region’s richest country. Chileans entered the Venezuelan petroleum and steel industries from the 1960s. A small, upper-middle-class wave followed, going into self-exile following the election of Allende in 1970 out of fear of socialism, preceding the much larger population forced into exile under Pinochet. Some Chileans returned home after the restoration of democracy but family ties with Venezuelans remained.

When a national referendum and democratic elections ended Pinochet’s rule in the late 1980s, Chile stayed fairly closed off. Very few migrants came during the repressive dictatorship and the population remained relatively homogeneous. But that changed quickly. In addition to returning Chilean exiles, Peruvians fleeing the regime of Alberto Fujimori made their way southward in the early 1990s, as did Bolivians.

“In the 1990s, we start seeing this image of Chile as the best country in the region,” says Cristian Dona-Reveco, a sociologist at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. “It was seen as the good neighbor in a bad neighborhood, the one that’s growing more, that has gone through a process of democratic transition that is unlike any other in the region.”

With each decade, a new group led the pack of political and economic migrants seeking opportunity in Chile. In the early 2000s, it was Colombians, who were fleeing cartel wars, renewed activity from the FARC and ELN guerilla groups and violence from the army and right-wing paramilitaries. Unlike earlier Colombian arrivals, and unlike Argentines escaping their country’s economic collapse, this group came mainly from lower-class and less-educated backgrounds. Media narratives spurred on widely held views that Colombians were bringing crime and trafficking drugs, despite Dona-Reveco’s research finding that immigrants committed crimes at lower rates than the native-born population.

Also with each new decade, a pattern emerged of nostalgia for earlier groups of migrants (perhaps with the exception of those from Colombia). As the number of Colombians ballooned, Chileans looked back fondly on the Peruvians they once resented. Similar sentiments arose when Haitians — the first mostly Black group of migrants — began arriving en masse.

After Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010, which killed up to 300,000 people, Chile opened its doors to Haitians in need. At first, Chileans felt a moral obligation to help Haitians, “but then when the numbers increased, you started seeing strong anti-Black racism and ideas that ‘there’s too many of them now,’” Dona-Reveco says.

That attitude that “there’s too many of them now” also grew around Venezuelans. Those who showed up prior to 2017 were largely upper-middle-class and could afford plane tickets. Many had family connections in Chile and some were political exiles. “The country felt a sort of duty to accept these Venezuelan exiles because Venezuela received so many Chilean exiles after Allende was deposed,” Dona-Reveco says. To some Chileans, Venezuelans’ warmth and cultural openness even felt like a breath of fresh air compared with their more stereotypically buttoned-up fellow citizens.

But since that initial group, the number of undocumented Venezuelans has skyrocketed. Fleeing the hyperinflation, repression and chronic food and medicine shortages that mark Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s rule, migrants have traveled by foot through some of the harshest conditions on Earth, crossing five borders via smugglers and enduring the extreme daytime heat and nighttime cold of the Atacama Desert, the driest nonpolar desert in the world.

By 2020, nearly one-third of all foreigners in Chile were Venezuelan. Their presence has only increased in the years since, as Chile has lifted its strict border closures aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19. With authorized entry points cut off for much of 2020 and 2021, smuggling and human trafficking networks across Latin America grew. Not only were all those who entered Chile over this period undocumented, but migrants now traveling again faced a less regulated human transport industry.

Compared with other Latin American countries, legal migrants in Chile have tended to find better access to jobs, pensions, health care and social services, according to Diego Chaves-Gonzalez of the Migration Policy Institute. But the narrative that Chile offers migrants more assistance “creates a distortion around the process of integration,” he says. “We’ve seen an increase in irregular migration of at least 700% in Chile, where they enforce that everything is done by the books through very strict norms against informality.”

More than a third of Venezuelans in Chile are undocumented and they run up against structures blocking their integration, Chaves-Gonzalez says.

“The precarity these migrants face to access the same services that those who are regular receive has created a very big gap,” he says. “A lot of irregular migrants do not have access to a banking system, do not have access to health care, to education or other benefits or to a formal job.”

With illegal border crossings rising by the day, Chile’s early embrace of Venezuelans has soured into a xenophobic backlash (as has happened elsewhere in the region, like Colombia and Peru). Thousands of Chileans have attended anti-migrant demonstrations in the northern city of Iquique, where violent factions have destroyed pop-up migrant camps and set fire to Venezuelans’ belongings. Singing the national anthem and waving Chilean flags, protesters have marched with placards reading “no more migrants” and “this can’t go on.”

Many Chileans complain that the new arrivals are too loud and not serious enough. They say they don’t work hard and party at all hours. They say they’re “taking over” public spaces and have brought gangs. Standing outside the embassy, Delia complains that “at the beginning, the people who came had professions, like doctors and dentists. But the new people coming have nothing, and they’re dedicating themselves to crime.”

Dona-Reveco and Chaves-Gonzalez both say that there’s no correlation between immigration and crime and that the problem is more structural.

“There is this narrative about the types of Venezuelans who are arriving in the country versus the so-called first wave of Venezuelan migrants,” Chaves-Gonzalez says. Yet even within those waves, a lot of people with advanced degrees and economic potential have come, he says. “It’s just that they have not been able to participate within the system because the system does not allow them to.”

Nevertheless, the backlash hasn’t just been against the new arrivals. It hasn’t been against just Venezuelans, either. It has been against all migrants. “There’s a construction of a new panimmigrant,” Dona-Reveco says. “It doesn’t matter if they’re Venezuelan; it doesn’t matter if they’re Colombian. They’re all considered the same. They’re all bad. They’re all bringing the worst of their own countries.”

For those lined up outside the embassy, however, it’s some of Venezuela’s worst qualities — the failing state, the nonsensical red tape, the incessant frustrations — that have followed them.

Lionel Rivera didn’t have the luxury of showing up at the embassy before the sun came out. Unlike Rosella and Jorge Noguera and Daniel, he doesn’t live in Santiago; he came from the city of Talca, roughly four hours away. He didn’t even know until the night before that he would have to journey to the capital. That’s when the embassy posted to its Instagram account a list of passports, including his, that would be ready for pickup the next day. It’s a posting Lionel had checked every night since his all-day wait outside the embassy with paperwork six months earlier. He wasn’t sure if the passport would still be available for pickup if he didn’t show up the next morning, but he wasn’t taking his chances.

Still, the trip would hit his bottom line. A 27-year-old father, slightly heavy with soft features and welcoming eyes, Lionel works as an Uber driver and would have to skip a day on the road. Lionel couldn’t arrange childcare on such short notice, so he brought his 3-year-old daughter Lucia in a stroller.

Arriving at 8 a.m., Lionel and his wife, Mabis, join the queue immediately behind Elizabeth Sivira, 55, who also traveled to the capital for her appointment, risking a day’s income. Short and spunky with dyed auburn hair, Elizabeth took the bus from her city near Valparaiso, roughly two hours from Santiago, where she works as a cleaner. Neither Lionel nor Elizabeth came from especially far away, yet neither can afford to make the trip again if they aren’t served.

“They’re going to see a crazy woman if they don’t help me,” Elizabeth says.

TV cameras also start showing up around this time, anticipating chaos outside the embassy. Two days earlier was an especially hectic day, thanks to an administrative miscommunication from the embassy (the day in between was a national holiday and the office was closed). Thinking that penal records — which tightened regulations have made necessary for legalized status and to avoid the threat of deportation — would be available without an appointment, Venezuelans rushed to the embassy in a more chaotic scene than usual, with some defecating on the streets. The mayor of the neighborhood was outraged.

But the embassy doesn’t offer any outdoor restrooms, and nearly all surrounding shops charge to use theirs.

“We’re human beings! Why can’t the embassy of our country put a bathroom here?” Elizabeth asks, though she already has a guess as to why. “Everything’s a business,” she says of the fees for restrooms, fees for chairs, fees for bed linen. Elizabeth pulls out a perfectly crisp $100 bill wrapped in plastic to emphasize the price of her passport alone, careful not to wrinkle it for fear an old note might get rejected. “It’s ridiculous that our own government makes us pay in U.S. dollars,” she says.

Elizabeth understands why the embassy’s neighbors are fed up with Venezuelan migrants crowding the streets and empathizes with their frustrations. Yet she says that poor Venezuelans don’t have other options. “They complain to police that we’re sleeping here, that we’re causing disorder,” she says. “They have every right to complain, but what should we do? The embassy hasn’t organized anything better.”

After an hour without much forward movement, Lionel and Mabis decide that maybe the presence of their young daughter can help. They have heard that, once inside the embassy, priority service is given to people with children, along with pregnant women and the elderly. The problem is getting inside; they’re still close to the end of the block around the corner. So they push Lucia’s stroller past Elizabeth (who agrees to save their spot for them), past the TV cameras, past other people with strollers until they reach the front of the line. Maybe Lucia’s curly brown hair and big brown eyes can persuade the guard to let them in. Maybe her wide smile or flamingo T-shirt will do the trick.

None of it works. Lionel and Mabis turn around dejected, heading back past the other strollers, back around the corner, back past the TV cameras to their spot in line that Elizabeth has been saving.

Lionel and Elizabeth didn’t know each other before. Yet soon, Elizabeth is holding Lionel’s daughter like she’s her niece, bouncing Lucia up and down in her arms.

“Since we’re Venezuelan, we’re already family,” she says. The line moves surprisingly fast over the course of the next hour, and Lionel and Elizabeth advance close to the corner. For the first time, getting inside the embassy feels within grasp.

But all isn’t as it seems. Most people on the line share a theory: With heightened scrutiny today, the embassy is letting people inside faster than usual to avoid bad publicity — only to keep them beyond the gate, where they must turn over cellphones, for longer.

“People keep going in, but nobody’s coming out,” Lionel says.

It’s a theory that seems to be borne out. Media interest wanes, with efficient lines making for lackluster TV. But once the cameras are gone, the queue stops moving. Lionel and Elizabeth are in the exact same spot as the hour before. The only difference is it’s hotter. Much hotter. Temperatures now approach 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The media is gone. The gringo will leave soon,” Elizabeth says of me. “So, the line has stopped moving.”

Until 2021, Chile’s only immigration law was a holdover from 1975. The Pinochet-era decree had fairly relaxed entry requirements for those coming by plane, who could enter on a six-month tourist visa and change its status to a work or student visa once they found a job or enrolled in a university. Thousands of migrants took advantage of this permissive policy as Chile became a more desirable destination in the decades that followed.

Yet as immigration kept rising, it became a heated political issue. In 2017, the center-right billionaire Sebastian Pinera made limiting migration a key plank of his presidential run — in a shift from the migration-encouraging policies of his center-left predecessor, Michelle Bachelet. It was the first time immigration had factored so heavily in a campaign, but Pinera’s platform better matched the public mood. He won the runoff election with almost 55% of the vote, setting the stage for his second stint as president.

Governing on a program of “cleaning up the house,” Pinera’s administration overhauled the 1975 immigration law and passed stricter regulations targeting migrants. But not all migrants. For the most part, the new restrictions applied to only two key groups: Venezuelans and Haitians. Not only did stricter visa requirements curb their legal entry but the government also had more power to expel migrants and the military patrolled the border, forcing migrants toward unauthorized crossings in dangerous conditions.

Even those who entered Chile legally at first and who have lived with residency since they arrived years ago are in danger of falling back to illegal status — a particularly worrying prospect, since “Chile hasn’t had a proper regularization mechanism for years,” according to Chaves-Gonzalez. That’s part of why the passport renewal and penal records are so critical to those at the embassy. They’ll need them to maintain their visa status, along with the generous health and education benefits Chile offers documented migrants.

Meanwhile, receiving asylum or refugee status is nearly impossible. In 2021, seven Venezuelans were granted refugee status out of more than 6,000 applicants.

“Refugee protection is basically nonexistent in Chile,” Chaves-Gonzalez says.

Early 2022 offered hope for those seeking a new approach to migration. A mass protest movement aimed at rewriting the Pinochet-era constitution swept left-wing presidential candidate Gabriel Boric into office. Elected amid a new “pink tide” of left-of-center Latin American leaders, Boric advocated a more integrated regional approach to migration and called for more dialogue with Maduro, while also expressing criticisms of the Venezuelan leader’s authoritarianism.

Yet Boric took few concrete measures on immigration early in his presidency and came under fire from the Chilean right and the media, who portrayed him as weak on crime and migration. His approval rating fell to as low as 25% in January (down from 50% when he entered office), according to a weekly poll by the Chilean firm Cadem. So the president changed his tune on migration. Ahead of elections in May for the committee to rewrite the constitution, Boric tacked rightward and deployed troops and police along Chile’s borders with Peru and Bolivia, aiming to prevent undocumented immigrants — especially Venezuelans — from entering.

This has come alongside a push in the legislature to criminalize and deport all undocumented migrants, as well as an increase in preventative detentions of foreigners deemed a criminal threat.

But while some Venezuelans are still arriving in Chile, others are heading in the opposite direction. Amid growing hostility from native Chileans, increasingly harsh policies and signs of economic instability, many Venezuelans have decided to risk the journey back north.

“Some people feel that this is no longer the really stable country they thought they were coming to,” Dona-Reveco says. Most are heading back to either Venezuela or the U.S. — or both.

Lacking passports, though, undocumented migrants must leave Chile the same way they entered: illegally. In late April this led to a diplomatic crisis with Peru, which itself declared a state of emergency and sent troops and police to the border. Blocked from entering Peru without documents, hundreds of migrants were stranded in camps on the Chilean side “without food, water, shelter or health care in a desert known for its extreme conditions,” according to Amnesty International. Some were repatriated to Venezuela on humanitarian flights in early May.

“There’s a paradox in Latin America right now,” Chaves-Gonzalez says. “At the diplomatic level, governments are promoting a hemispheric approach to migration. But at the national level, they’re promoting narratives around how to securitize the border.”

In Boric’s case, the election for the Constitutional Council played a clear role in his rhetorical shift. Opposition parties framed the vote as a referendum on Boric’s leadership. Boric’s government “has been cornered into making migration a key issue for its popularity,” Dona-Reveco says. “It’s trying to develop these really, really strict and negative laws against migrants as a way to present itself as strong.”

In the election, however, these image-rebranding efforts fell short. The far right won almost half of the seats on the Constitutional Council. Together with the traditional conservative opposition, the right won a two-thirds supermajority. Just over one year into Boric’s presidency, “his government is already somewhat of a lame duck,” Dona-Reveco says.

There’s an irony to all the attention being given to the border spat with Peru: Those migrants, trapped and journeying home, don’t represent most Venezuelans. The majority would rather stay in Chile, despite the souring political climate.

“A lot of people dream about moving to the U.S., but not me,” Elizabeth says outside the embassy. “The American dream is a lot of work. Here in Chile, I work, but then I enjoy life.” Yet to enjoy life to the fullest under the latest restrictions, she will need a passport. So despite the soaring temperatures, she is prepared to wait at the embassy for as long as it takes.

Suddenly, an embassy employee pops out. “Fingerprints! fingerprints!” he yells. It’s 12:30 p.m., four and a half hours after Elizabeth first arrived. Sensing an unparalleled lucky break, Elizabeth rushes toward the door and seizes her chance. The employee lets in her as well as others quick on their feet — even though he wasn’t supposed to. A supervisor comes out minutes later and clarifies that he’s in charge of who can enter.

Lionel isn’t so lucky. He may be 30 years younger than Elizabeth, but he’s holding a stroller and can’t be as mobile. Yet a few more people trickle in over the next half hour and Lionel makes it to the front of the line. He’s on the cusp of finally getting through. He’s so close he can feel it.

But just as his mood finally starts to brighten, the door slams shut in his face. The embassy workers are breaking for lunch. Lionel and his daughter will be stuck under the scorching sun for at least another hour.

Lionel tries to yell through the door for the guards to let him in. He looks desperate. Don’t they understand he has a 3-year-old daughter? Can’t they just let one more family pass?

But it’s hopeless. Dejected, he and Mabis cross the road, where at least they can sit under some trees in the shade. They enter the convenience shop facing the embassy. Lionel buys an empanada, which he feeds to Lucia once they sit on a small strip of grass by the sidewalk. He gets a malta for himself.

Lionel wants so badly to be let inside the embassy. He imagines the mental relief it would offer, a feeling of security that he hasn’t come all this way for nothing. But in reality, passing the gate only starts a new journey. It’s a lesson Elizabeth has learned the hard way. Inside, she is given a number, joining the queue of those waiting to be served. Number 93 is at the front. She is number 251.

Rosela and Jorge Noguera already discovered the mess indoors. Once they got through the door, the line stopped moving for two hours. That was before they went through three layers of processing. First their documents were checked. Then they waited. Then they paid. Then they waited again. Finally, their fingerprints and photos were taken. Only four employees worked the computers. The Nogueras exited five hours after they entered.

Sitting in the heat with her father, Lucia starts crying uncontrollably. The lunch hour is almost up, so Lionel rushes back to the door, holding his wailing child (Mabis follows with the stroller). Lionel’s daughter alone couldn’t get him priority entrance earlier. But a crying daughter is a different story. The guard lets the family in straight away when the door opens at 2 p.m. Everyone else is forced to wait, as the guard reimposes order after the dash to the door.

Both Lionel and Elizabeth make it out of the embassy a little after 5 p.m. Each of their trips was a success: Lionel has his passport in hand, and Elizabeth has submitted her paperwork. But each still has a long bus ride home.

Elizabeth gets back to her house around 8 p.m. For Lionel, it’s not until 10 at night. It’s the first time he has set foot in his house since 4 in the morning. But the wait was nothing. It’s the first time in years he has had a valid passport.

Domiziana Palumbo contributed to this article.

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