Chile Faces Latin America’s Migrant Future

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Every weekday, starting around 10:30, Josi Ramirez rolls her Styrofoam container full of baked snacks to a metro stop in Santiago’s Estacion Central, the fast-growing city district that is reshaping the Chilean capital. “Chicken arepas, empanadas, fresh and hot!” she calls out, flogging her Venezuelan treats to commuters hustling to remake themselves in a strange land.

Famed for its shimmering office towers, smart shops and arbored plazas, Santiago is a postcard for cosmopolitan Latin America. Yet it is here among the city’s “vertical ghettos” -- artless high-rises, stacked one after another on denuded lots, and teeming with foreigners like Josi -- that the future of this Andean metropolis, and perhaps of the region itself, is playing out.

Once again, immigration is remaking the southern flank of the Western Hemisphere. Just as repression, strife and economic disruption sent millions of Europeans to the countries that would become Latin America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, contemporary woes are driving foreigners to the region. The difference: Most of today’s newcomers are familiar strangers, fellow Latin Americans hoping to escape homemade misfortune for a second chance in the land next door.

It’s tempting to look at the human jetsam -- Venezuelans escaping their collapsing economy, Haitians shrugging off serial natural and political disasters, Colombians fleeing an uncertain peace -- and conclude that Latin America is simply part of the global demographic upheaval that has stoked nativism and poisoned politics from Berlin to Texas.

Certainly, the spike in migration is exacting a toll in receiving countries. The number of Venezuelan asylum seekers worldwide has jumped 2,000 percent since 2014: Look no further than the families streaming over the Simon Bolivar bridge into Colombia and piling into refugee camps across the Brazilian border. Resentment and racial tensions occasionally flare, while some migrants face serious risks even as they have seen once welcoming nations raise barriers.

Yet most nations in the region have made room for their less fortunate neighbors. With xenophobia and populist yahoos rising in the rich world, most Central and South American societies are trying to manage, not block, the flow of foreigners, even as business and industry tap the eager labor pool.

“Latin America has a good record of dealing with diversity,” Barnard College migration historian Jose Moya told me. “Yes, there are high levels of inequality and racial bias. But countries generally welcome outsiders and most foreigners fit in eventually.”

The rush to Chile makes sense. Stable and democratic, it boasts sturdy institutions, a vibrant economy and enviable living standards. No wonder the number of foreign nationals  increased three-fold between 2006 and 2016. Until President Sebastian Pinera tightened entry restrictions in April, Venezuelans, Haitians and other foreign nationals were spilling over the border at the clip of 30,000 a month, outpacing migration to the United Kingdom.

A conceit of development economics has it that when immigrants reach 10 percent of a given population, competition for jobs and public services becomes critical. Arguably, Latin America’s storied tolerance to outsiders may be because there are so few of them. For all the talk of an immigration onslaught, recent government estimates based on Chile’s 2017 census reckoned  that 6.1 percent of the population was foreign born, up from 1 percent in 2006. In immigrant-friendly Costa Rica, it’s 8.8 percent.

So as immigration surges, can the bonhomie last? Jose Moya is optimistic. “Receptivity is not just a matter of numbers,” he said. “Just look at eastern Europe,” he added, noting that far right parties and nationalism are growing in Poland and Slovakia, “even though both countries have trifling numbers of foreigners.”

Despite localized humanitarian emergencies in Colombia and Brazil, most regional governments are managing the inflows. The Fakhoury Law Group, an international legal consultancy, recently warned clients that Chilean immigration authorities were taking “a whole day” to process visas and permits for foreigners -- a turnaround time that would be the envy of most of the region’s bureaucracies.

There’s good reason to keep the gates open. Migrants bring skills, gumption and youthful energy, all assets that can be parlayed into enterprise in a new land. “Most migrants are self-selected, have valuable human capital, and are more skilled than their hosts on average,” Ernest Miguelez, a migration and innovation scholar at the National Center for Scientific Research, in Bordeaux, France, said in an interview. “They tend to contribute to entrepreneurship, launch startups and drive innovation.”

That infusion of new blood may be exactly what the gerontologist ordered. In Chile, where the birthrate has plunged 20 percent since 2000 and life expectancy is increasing, the population aged 65 and over is  expected to double by 2050. “Migrants kick in 0.2 percent of annual economic growth a year,” University of Chile economist Juan Bravo told me. “This is a crucial contribution and can compensate for a graying labor force.” And contrary to the populist rant over job theft, immigrants accounted for just 2.1 percent of total employment last year.

Church groups and social critics frown on monetizing immigration. “Migrants aren’t instruments. We need inclusive policies to help people in need,” said Jose Tomas Vicuna, director of the Jesuit Migrant Service, a religious support group.

That’s reasonable enough, but finding decent work for struggling foreigners is a crucial test for Latin America’s social contract. Among Chile’s immigrants, 59 percent of Venezuelans, 52 percent of Ecuadorans and 42 percent of Argentines hold university degrees. Yet the overwhelming majority of them, including two-thirds of Colombians, six of ten Venezuelans and nearly all Haitians, languish in low-skill, underpaid jobs, according to a recent report by the University of Chile’s Latin American Center of Political Economy.  “That’s a lot of squandered talent,” said Bravo.

Consider Josi: Earlier this year, with no job prospects, the 30-year-old former marketing professional left her native city of Acarigua, in northwestern Venezuela, traveled overland through Colombia and Peru, finally arriving nine days and 7,400 kilometers later in Santiago. With a decade of management and accounting experience, she quickly landed a position at an advertising agency, but pulled down only 400,000 pesos a month, or around $634. She now earns more peddling arepas at the metro stop.

Matching jobs with skills for Josi and her immigrant peers is important not just for accommodating newcomers, but also for creating wealth, building human capital and sparking innovation in Chile and beyond. Mapping the labor market is one way to direct the flow of talent, says Bravo. Another is to jump-start stalled ideas about regional integration, such as cross-border labor conventions and mutual recognition of diplomas: In Chile, only the University of Chile can validate foreign diplomas.

There’s precedent for keeping borders open. Last century, Argentina and Chile welcomed Korean immigrants who helped to revolutionize the national textile industries while Japanese migrants reinvented Brazilian agriculture. And in another sign of assimilation, even the region’s disgraced politicians -- Bucaram, Humala, Martinelli, Rousseff -- trace their roots to migrant stock. Now a new wave of strangers is washing up and eager to apply their talent and industry. While the buzz in the rich nations is over containment and immigrant detention camps, Latin America could do itself a favor and build bridges.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.