Chile’s Welcoming Approach to Immigrants Cools as Numbers Rise
One of South America’s most economically advanced countries, Chile inhabits a novel position as a major migrant destination in the Global South. The end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1990 transformed Chile into a regional migration capital, and crises in Haiti and Venezuela led to large-scale influxes in recent years that have shaken the country’s politics and at times overwhelmed a decades-old immigration framework that critics contended was woefully out of date. New reforms, in particular Law 21,325 enacted in April 2021, could tighten immigration by making it harder to obtain a residence permit from inside the country and allowing authorities to turn back people caught crossing the border without authorization, but it is so far unclear what impact it will have over the long term.
Immigrants accounted for just 1 percent of Chile’s population in 1992, but over the next three decades their numbers swelled, and the nearly 1.5 million immigrants in Chile as of 2020 comprised nearly 9 percent of the country’s population. This change was accompanied by growing public anxiety and has become an important topic of public debate. For the first time in recent memory, elections have been significantly marked by immigration concerns, anti-immigration tropes have become more common in newspapers and public discourse, and protests have led to destruction of migrant camps. In 2021, the United Nations expressed concern about “violence and xenophobia” towards migrants, particularly in northern Chile where sizable numbers have arrived without authorization. In subsequent months, soldiers also stood guard at a trench along Chile’s border with Bolivia to prevent unauthorized crossings.
Starting in 2010, immigration also became racially diverse, including a significant number of people of African descent from Colombia and particularly Haiti. The largest group of new immigrants, however, are Venezuelans, who accounted for nearly one-third of all immigrants as of 2020. This marks a sharp break from previous decades. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Chile was chiefly a destination for immigrants from Europe, but migration declined in the postwar years. Separately, hundreds of thousands of Chileans left the country during the 17-year Pinochet dictatorship that began in 1973, either by choice or as political exiles. A limited number of exiles returned in the early 1990s, followed in subsequent years by arrivals from Chile’s South American neighbors.
Neighboring Peru remains a top origin country (comprising 16 percent of Chile’s immigrant population), as is Colombia (11 percent; see Table 1). Meanwhile, Bolivia (9 percent) and Argentina (5 percent), once among the largest countries of origin, have become less prominent. The number of immigrants entering the country through unauthorized entry points has also grown in recent years, with tens of thousands arriving since 2019.
Table 1. Immigrants in Chile by Country of Origin, 2020
Source: Chilean National Institute of Statistics, “Estimación población extranjera en Chile por sexo, grupo de edad y país, según años 2020, 2019, 2018 y regiones” accessed May 17, 2022, available online.
The foreign born in Chile now make up a larger share of the country’s population than any other country in South America, and the second largest in the broader Latin America and the Caribbean region, after Costa Rica. In absolute terms, the foreign-born population in Chile is Latin America’s third largest, behind those in Argentina and Colombia. This population has expanded twelvefold since 1992 and more than quadrupled since 2012.
This country profile provides an overview of Chile’s migration history and trends, with a focus on the post-1990 era. The rapid increase in immigration has complicated efforts to count and characterize Chile’s immigrant population. This article mainly uses data from the UN Population Division, the National Institute of Statistics, and National Migration Service.
Historical Immigration: Selective Encouraging of Europeans and Exodus during the Dictatorship
After declaring independence from Spain in 1810, Chile spent approximately a century encouraging immigration from Europe. An 1824 law was intended to coax arrivals primarily from England, Germany, and Switzerland to start factories in urban centers and populate sparsely inhabited southern areas. In 1854, the census showed a foreign-born population of approximately 20,000, most of them German. In 1882, Chile established a General Immigration Agency in Europe, which offered settler families land in uncultivated areas; between 1883 and 1895, more than 31,000 northern Europeans settled in the southern colonies of Llanquihue and Valdivia. As a result of these types of selective policies, more than half of Chile’s foreign-born population between 1865 and 1920 was comprised of Europeans, although the trend was briefly interrupted by the 1879-83 War of the Pacific, when migrants from elsewhere in Latin America predominated.
World Wars I and II put an end to the selective encouragement of European migration, as fears of an influx of refugees encouraged Chilean lawmakers to restrict entry of the foreign born in 1918. In later years, immigration was largely limited to immediate relatives of immigrants who had resided in the country for at least two years. Starting in the late 1940s the foreign-born population began to decline, both as a percentage of the total population and in absolute terms. Still, between 1907 and 1940 Arab immigration increased from Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria, as many fled the unraveling Ottoman Empire and its partitioned states. By 1930, Arabs accounted for more than 15 percent of the foreign-born population, and by 1952 more than 20 percent. Despite their modest numbers (8,000 to 10,000 people came between 1885 and 1940), Arab immigrants and their descendants have been especially active in Chile’s economic, political, and intellectual life.
Amid discussions about relocating post-World War II refugees from Europe, the Chilean government in 1953 approved an immigration law, the Decreto con Fuerza de Ley No. 69 (Decree with Force of Law No. 69), to create the Immigration Office and establish a legal system for immigrants. This was the last major immigration reform to pass through the legislature until 2021.
Pinochet, Emigration, and the Legacy of the 1975 Law
Following decades of democracy, a military coup in 1973 installed Pinochet as Chile's leader. More than 500,000 Chileans voluntarily left or were forced to flee during the economic and political crisis that followed, going to countries such as Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, Sweden, and Venezuela, where they often joined thousands of emigrants who had left since the 1950s. Years later, some of these emigrant populations have persisted: As of 2020, 644,000 Chileans lived abroad, and top destinations were Argentina (with more than 215,000 Chileans), the United States (90,000), Spain (62,000), Australia (34,000), and Canada (29,000), according to UN figures. The number of Chilean emigrants has not increased significantly in the last ten years, growing an average of 1 percent annually between 2010 and 2020.
The new social, political, and economic order discouraged immigration to Chile. The government also imposed stricter controls yet encouraged foreign investment by privileging foreign currencies and technology. Migrants from elsewhere in South America replaced Europeans as the dominant group, as these immigrants began to age. Significant numbers of Korean immigrants also arrived, attracted by economic incentives, and began to overshadow Arab migrants in terms of economic power and numbers.
Despite the slight increase in educated and comparatively wealthy immigrants, most migrants were discouraged by the brutality and repression of the Pinochet regime, which oversaw the killing, torture, or political imprisonment of more than 40,000 people. In 1982, the number of immigrants in Chile reached a historic low of 84,000, accounting for less than 1 percent of the country's population. Chile was clearly an emigration country, with close to 1 million Chileans residing abroad and a net migration rate of -1.1 migrants per 1,000 people over the 1985-90 period.
The 1975 Decree Law (DL) 1094 was the most significant migration policy from this period; it defined various immigrant categories as well as the functions of the office that regulated the entrance, residence, control, and expulsion of the foreign born. This law was part of Pinochet's broader effort to control immigration. It viewed new arrivals through the lens of national security and sought principally to prevent the entry of people the government perceived to be dangerous or terrorist elements. The law created a new visa regime with three main categories: tourists, temporary residents, and permanent residents. Within the temporary residents’ category, it also created five subcategories: contracted workers, an open temporary resident category, students, government officials, and refugees or asylees.
Return to Democracy and Transition from Sending to Receiving Country
Immigration to Chile remained low in the first years after the country’s return to democratic rule. The fewer than 115,000 immigrants in Chile in 1992 represented less than 1 percent of the total population. This began to change through the 1990s, initially fueled by returning exiles who brought with them foreign-born spouses and children. Early on, Chile encouraged people who left during the Pinochet dictatorship to return, by measures such as creating the Oficina Nacional del Retorno (National Office of Return), exempting political exiles from customs duties, and validating university degrees obtained abroad. However, the office was only intended to be temporary and closed in 1994.
At the same time, the end of the Cold War prompted the government to reconsider the 1975 law and try to capitalize on what it expected would be an exodus of highly qualified migrants from the former Soviet Union. The administration of President Patricio Aylwin (in office from 1990 to 1994) sought to replace the DL 1094 and comprehensively overhaul Chile’s migration regime for the first time since 1953, but the proposal received limited congressional debate and was abandoned in 1997.
During this initial post-dictatorship period, about half of Chile’s immigrant population came from nearby, although this would change in later years. In 1992, 30 percent of immigrants came from Argentina and almost 14 percent combined from Chile’s other neighbors of Bolivia and Peru; ten years later, almost 53 percent of the 190,000 immigrants in Chile were from these three countries (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Foreign-Born Population in Chile by Country of Birth, 1992-2020
Source: Author’s analysis of multiple years of census data from Chilean National Institute of Statistics, “Censos de Población y Vivienda” and “Estimación población extranjera en Chile por sexo, grupo de edad y país, según años 2020, 2019, 2018 y regiones” accessed May 17, 2022, available online.
Net migration turned positive by 1995 and grew significantly in the coming years, to a high of slightly more than 6 immigrants for every 1,000 inhabitants in 2020 (see Figure 2). Across South America, Chile was the only country to have more new immigrants than emigrants between 1990 and 2010, and between 2010 and 2020 it had the highest such ratio. Massive displacement of more than 6 million people from Venezuela since 2014—with Chile the number four destination after Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador—was a prime factor in this more recent growth, and indeed this exodus fueled immigration to most countries in South America.
Figure 2. Net Migration to and from Chile 1950-2050
Note: Data for years after 2020 are UN projections.
Source: UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, “World Population Prospects 2019,” 2019, available online.
During this period many members of the public became increasingly concerned about rising immigration, which led to negative portrayals in major media. These concerns were exacerbated by the economic crisis of the late 1990s, which partly fueled the increase in the number of regional migrants, as did instability in Argentina.
Chile’s immigration policy was unprepared for the change, and the government was unable to adequately respond. In place of a policy overhaul, the government in 1998 began a major regularization process, which resulted in granting about 44,000 temporary visas and 18,000 permanent residency permits to recent immigrants, mostly from Peru and Bolivia. The administration of President Ricardo Lagos (2000-06) considered a new migration proposal but never sent a draft to the National Congress, and sought to reform migration-related agencies. Arguably the most important achievement of these years was the development of interagency agreements to protect pregnant immigrant women and their children, providing them with free prenatal care in public hospitals.
On the international front, the Lagos administration ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrants Workers and Members of their Families and signed the Residence Agreement of the regional bloc Mercosur, which guarantees that citizens of signatory states are able to receive residence and work permits in other signatory countries, but never sent it for congressional approval. Chile has only partially implemented the Mercosur Residence Agreement, instead offering until new reforms were enacted in early 2022 a parallel Mercosur temporary visa, created in 2015, for which citizens of original Mercosur Member States (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay) could apply from within Chile but not at Chilean consulates abroad. Unlike other countries in the agreement, Chile does not apply the Mercosur agreement to citizens of Colombia, Ecuador, or Peru.
Establishment of a “Welcoming Country”
After Michelle Bachelet became president in 2006, her administration published the 2008 Instructivo Presidencial No. 9 (Presidential Instruction No. 9), a nonbinding document which sought to position Chile as a welcoming country that would accept new arrivals without discrimination and ensure worker and legal rights for immigrants. Most importantly, it consolidated two key policies to ensure all pregnant mothers and children could access the public-health system and guaranteed all children access to public education, regardless of their migration status. Notably, Bachelet has been the only president who has attempted to address migration using these Instructivos Presidenciales rather than trying to go through the legislature. Congress did, however, create a regularization process that helped about 30,000 immigrants receive their residency permits; the continued presence of DL 1094 significantly restricted the government’s ability, though.
While Bachelet was in office, Congress also approved a law creating a broad framework for refugees and asylum seekers, known as Law 20,430. The 1975 law created a pathway for refugees and asylum seekers, and Chile was the first South American country to launch a refugee resettlement program in cooperation with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which it did in 1999. Chile has resettled some refugees in recent years, but the government has not maintained a consistent policy for humanitarian arrivals. Of the nearly 22,000 asylum applications submitted since the Law 20,430 was enacted, only 700 have been approved, according to Chile’s Immigration Office, almost 95 percent of them from Colombians, Venezuelans, and Cubans. Unlike other countries in the region, Chile has also not applied the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees to Venezuelan migrants, and less than 1 percent of asylum applications from Venezuelans have been approved as of late 2020.
In 2010 Bachelet left office and ended the period of power held by the center-left coalition that had defeated Pinochet, known as the Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia (Coalition of Parties for Democracy). It was replaced by a right-wing coalition headed by President Sebastián Piñera, which aimed to define migration as a key component of Chile’s economic development and attract only highly qualified immigrants or people who could push Chilean women into the labor force, namely immigrants in the care industry. However, a proposed migration law that Piñera’s administration sent to Congress in 2013, near the end of his term, was widely criticized by migration scholars and civil-society organizations as being too restrictive and focused on economic elements, and was ignored by the legislature.
Bachelet’s second administration began in 2014, but despite lofty campaign promises immigration was never a central component of her legislative program, which focused more on changing the Chilean constitution, reforming labor and pension issues, and expanding abortion rights. Bachelet’s administration published a second presidential decree, Instructivo Presidencial No. 5, which proposed administrative reforms to the Immigration Office and adding immigration-related units to each governmental ministry. It also by created the National Advisory Council on Migration (Consejo Consultivo Nacional de Migraciones) to promote immigrant participation in migration policies. This Instructivo also restated elements of the administration’s migration policy, including access to health care for pregnant mothers, children and anyone in need of emergency care regardless of immigration status, and equal access to housing subsidies and other services.
Amid pressure from civil-society organizations, opposition politicians, and others, Bachelet’s administration also sent an immigration proposal to Congress in 2017 that would have codified most of these changes, although critics contended that the draft was a watered-down version of her earlier promises. This proposal was originally developed as an outgrowth of the Instructivo Presidencial No. 5 but was unveiled less than three months before the presidential election with little chance of being adopted. It was also modified during discussions throughout the administration, as officials within the Ministry of Treasury argued it was too expensive, while some within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs objected to diminishing the role of Chilean consulates. These interadministration negotiations delayed the proposal, which was ultimately ignored by Congress, and underscored how political concerns around immigration had heightened.
“Cleaning Up the House” amid Venezuelan and Haitian Arrivals
Meanwhile, immigration grew dramatically and came from new places. Argentina had ceased to be the main country of origin by 2012, having been overtaken by Peru (the origin of 31 percent of immigrants at the time), which had been facing years of economic challenges and internal conflict. And by 2017 the immigrant population had surged to more than 783,000, more than double the size of just five years before. The 2017 census recorded the three largest origin countries as Peru (from which 25 percent of all migrants came), Colombia (14 percent), and Venezuela (11 percent).
Arrivals from Haiti and Venezuela were particularly notable. The number of Haitian immigrants escalated following a devastating 2010 earthquake, facilitated by Chile’s involvement in the United Nations’ stabilization force in Haiti, from fewer than 50 people in 1992 to more than 182,700 in 2020. Some were people who had first attempted to settle in Brazil immediately after the earthquake but moved onward to Chile and other countries as economic conditions in Brazil deteriorated and a construction boom surrounding the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics ended. Venezuelans meanwhile numbered fewer than 2,500 in 1992 but grew to nearly 448,900 in 2020, driven by cascading political and economic crisis in their native country.
Most of these individuals came between 2017 and 2020, when the overall foreign-born population nearly doubled. Nearly 362,000 Venezuelans and 117,000 Haitians arrived in Chile during these years, accounting for slightly more than 80 percent of all Venezuelans and 64 percent of Haitians in the country as of 2020 (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. Share of Immigrants in Chile by Origin and Period of Arrival, 2020
Note: Arrivals after 2017 refer to those who came to Chile following the 2017 census, which occurred in April.
Source: Author’s analysis of multiple years of census data from Chilean National Institute of Statistics, “Censos de Población y Vivienda.”
Chile at the time promised strong economic growth, a peaceful political environment, and visa rules that allowed for easy entrance. It also had a historical connection with Venezuela, which was where many Chilean exiles fled after the 1973 coup (anecdotal data suggest some of the first Venezuelan immigrants in Chile had family relations with Chileans). As Haiti and Venezuela descended into economic and political crises throughout the decade, these factors became especially attractive.
Piñera was re-elected in 2017 amid these escalating arrivals and brought a slew of changes as part of his doctrine of “cleaning up the house,” the most notable of which was a law enacted in April 2021 replacing the 1975 migration law. The new law adopts the language of human-rights protections but nonetheless enhances the government’s power to expel migrants and restrict their access to protections, thereby maintaining the national security lens that has defined Chile’s approach to immigrants since the 1970s. For instance, it both promises to respect migrants’ rights “regardless of their migration status” while also limiting freedom of movement and residency to those in the country legally; elsewhere, it guarantees equal access to social security and other benefits, but only for immigrants who have resided in Chile for at least two years. Among the provisions is a process allowing authorities to “redirect” (reconducción) migrants arriving through irregular means back across the border. The law also provided a way for unauthorized migrants who had legally entered the country before March 2020 to apply for legal status, while those who arrived through irregular means were told to leave and apply for a visa from a Chilean consulate abroad. Approximately 124,000 applied for regular status by the end of 2021. However, full implementation of the law was delayed by a court challenge and implementing regulations were not published until February 2022, so it is unclear what affect it will have on future immigration or immigrants’ experiences.
Even before this law was enacted, Piñera used executive decrees starting in April 2018 to jumpstart the reform process. For Haitians, Piñera imposed visa requirements mandating they obtain from the Chilean consulate in Port-a-Prince either a three-month tourist visa that cannot be used to gain long-term status, a visa for family reunification, or a sponsored work visa. The results were felt immediately; nearly 126,00 temporary visas were given to Haitians in 2018—part of them resulting from a regularization process the same year—which declined to only 37,000 in 2019 and 33,000 in 2020. The government also began to return mostly Haitian immigrants to their country using the so-called Humanitarian Plan of Orderly Return (Plan Humanitario de Retorno Ordenado), under which migrants had to sign affidavits that they would not come back to Chile for nine years (this requirement was later overturned by the Chilean Supreme Court).
Venezuelans, meanwhile, could obtain so-called Democratic Responsibility Visas, which have somewhat onerous requirements but offer a path to permanent residency; since 2019, however, Venezuelans have needed tourist visas even for short stays. A 2018 regularization process granted legal status to more than 210,000 immigrants, including many who had overstayed their visas, however this accounted for only about 30 percent of those in irregular status at the time.
Recent public concerns about immigration have at times translated into challenges for immigrants, particularly Haitians, who comprise the first significant Black population in Chile and may not necessarily speak Spanish as a first language. A 2019 survey found that Haitians were the least likely group of immigrants to be employed and the most likely to report workplace discrimination. Partially in response to these conditions, which deteriorated amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as misperceptions about U.S. policies under the Biden administration, thousands of Haitians have left Chile, often heading north towards Mexico and the United States. Rising numbers of Haitian migrants transiting through the Americas have since 2020 caused political, logistical, and humanitarian challenges for countries along the route.
Meanwhile, Venezuelans who arrived in Chile before 2018 have tended to be relatively well educated, economically secure, and their children have tended to be enrolled in school, particularly compared to Venezuelan migrants elsewhere, perhaps due to the resources necessary to travel from their origin country. Venezuelan arrivals continued to tick up during the pandemic, which was particularly hard-felt in Venezuela. Chilean authorities reported that nearly 56,600 people arrived via unauthorized border crossings in 2021, 80 percent of them from Venezuela and most coming as families. Many traveled on foot through the remote Atacama Desert in Chile’s north, where they faced hazards including brutal environmental conditions and criminal gangs. The National Statistics Institute predicted that by the end of 2022, nearly 562,000 Venezuelans could be living in Chile—a 20 percent growth from 2020.
Many local residents have been concerned by the pace of arrivals in Chile’s north. In response, the Piñera administration in late 2017 placed control of the Chile-Bolivia border in the hands of the military instead of the police and built several ditches measuring 300 meters (984 feet) long and at least 1.2 meters (about 3 feet) wide. This has pushed migrants towards more dangerous passages to cross a border that sits more than 3,500 meters (nearly 11,500 feet) above sea level and in one of the driest deserts in the world. Militarization of the border has not resulted in fewer arrivals, but there have been more deaths. At least 25 people have died trying to enter Chile since January 2021, which may be less than in other borderlands but is a stark turnaround from before 2018, when there were no recorded deaths at the Chile-Bolivia border.
Anti-immigrant attacks meanwhile have increased significantly since 2018. Immigrants, particularly Venezuelan chavistas, were among those scapegoated for spearheading protests against the Piñera administration in 2018, and during the COVID-19 pandemic the foreign born were cast as carriers of disease and unworthy of the limited public-health resources—despite the significant number of foreign-born professionals in the public-health sector. Animosity has grown, and since mid-2021 thousands of protesters have demonstrated in places such as the northern city of Iquique, calling for migrants to be expelled and, in some cases, attacking those living in camps. In February 2022 a truck driver was killed by a migrant and truckers subsequently blocked road access, leading to a temporary state of emergency in the north.
Unauthorized migration was a recurring topic during the 2021 presidential campaign, which seemed to benefit ultraconservative presidential candidate José Antonio Kast, who called for a new police unit targeting unauthorized immigrants, among other measures. Yet in a December runoff Kast was defeated by left-wing former student protest leader Gabriel Boric, who has focused more on combating climate change, overhauling Chile’s market-oriented economy, and other issues.
So far, little has changed in the first months of the Boric administration. As of this writing the northern border is still under military guard. However, the administration has allowed immigrants to request a change in their status while in Chile for any reason (previously this was only possible for family or humanitarian purposes). Boric has also discussed the need for a regional response to Venezuelan displacement, such as through a quota system similar to Europe’s efforts in 2015. Although some members of his campaign were opposed to the new immigration law, there have been no mentions of changing or reversing it. Still, immigration remains a potential political liability that Boric will need to be attuned to, particularly if arrivals continue to increase.
A New Migration Regime at Long Last?
Public debate over Chile’s migration policies since the Pinochet regime has been mostly reactive, responding to changes in migration flows and political pressure. For years presidents failed to get their reforms through Congress and instead turned to administrative measures, although rising arrivals from Haiti and Venezuela provided context for Piñera’s recent overhaul. However, the true impact of the law will only be felt in coming years, and it is unclear whether the Boric administration will embrace its more restrictive elements.
At least in the short term, policymakers in Santiago will likely face continued pressure from northern communities frustrated by continued unauthorized arrivals, particularly as pandemic-related restrictions ease and if stagnant economic situations persist in Venezuela and elsewhere. While Venezuelans had in previous years reported less discrimination than Haitian migrants, that situation could change. Public anxieties about immigration had simmered at multiple points in Chile’s recent history but seemed to grow especially heated as the foreign-born population has swelled since the mid-2010s and particularly following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In coming months, voters will also consider a rewrite of the national constitution, following a 2020 referendum to revise the Pinochet-era text, which will pose a major test for Boric’s efforts to bury the last vestiges of the dictatorship. The legacy of that period still looms large over many elements of Chilean society. A young millennial president may represent a new era for country, but the last three decades have shown that proactive reform is difficult to accomplish.
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